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Three ways in which drones are good for the  environment

Image adapted from original by Don McCullough

Are they good? Are they bad? Are they the future? Drones have been under the spotlight for quite some time now. We are witnessing an incredible technological advancement that won’t slow down and the employment of drones in the most heterogeneous of fields.

However, growing concern over the use of drones has raised some questions that have contentious answers. While, for example, the farming industry has benefited from the introduction of drones, others are worried about privacy invasion or the ethical implications of drone warfare. Certainly powerful tools, drones provide a new perspective on several of what were formerly purely human activities.

One critical question to address concerns a pressing issue of today’s global challenges: are drones good or bad for the environment? In the face of legitimate concerns over the use of drones, here are three ways in which their employment is actually environmentally responsible.

Reducing carbon emissions

Drone delivery may sound like a thing from the future, but that perception couldn’t be more wrong. Amazon, UPS and other well-known delivery companies have already updated their transportation systems to include drone delivery. The service has great potential: for instance, with Amazon Prime Air you can get your parcel delivered in 30 minutes by an unmanned drone.

Besides customer satisfaction, this delivery system achieves another goal: it has a lower environmental impact than delivery via land. The fuel used to power the trucks that transport our packages is one of the greatest threats to our environment, whereas drone delivery uses less energy - thus reducing carbon emissions.

One might be sceptical about the carbon footprint of the energy used for air delivery and wonder whether it actually reduces emissions. A 2018 study on the greenhouse gas emissions of drones for package delivery showed that a drone does use significant less energy than a truck that runs on fuel. On the other hand, while a truck can carry large numbers of packages, a drone has limited capacity. Additionally, the bigger the drone is, the more electricity it needs to deliver a package.

Despite these drawbacks, the application of drone technology for delivery does indeed provide a potentially sustainable model. Of course, further steps can be taken to ensure the use of as little energy as possible: studies on the life cycle impact of drone delivery suggest that limiting both the size of drones and the space their warehousing requires can and will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Reducing the use of chemicals

With drones becoming a more accessible technology, their application in agriculture has been increasingly spreading - to the benefit of the environment. From planting to monitoring, the deployment of this new technology has helped reduce the environmental impact of farming.

Thanks to the employment of drones, farmers can map and assess the land, thus planting in the most efficient way possible. While monitoring the crops might have taken valuable time and energy before, now drones can do so with more precision and in less time. The positive outcome of better control over the land is twofold: firstly, if the starting conditions of the crops are improved, farmers will need fewer chemicals to maximise revenue. Secondly, the overall use of fertilizers and pesticides will be minimized thanks to a renewed way of spraying crops: drones are able to spray chemicals more accurately than what planes have been able to do so far. It has been shown that by using drones for crop spraying, the nitrogen released into the environment is reduced by 20%.

Image adapted from original by HerneyThe use of drones in the farming industry is incredibly broad: their employment can go from 3D mapping to monitoring crop health, water levels and livestock. Some may even want to replace sheepdogs with drones!

Helping with wildlife conservation

While many environmentalists have explored the most dangerous and inaccessible areas of the world in an effort to safeguard wildlife, access to a significant portion of targeted areas remains problematic. That is when drones come in: they can easily monitor these areas with virtually no invasive intervention, thus minimising the impact on the environment.

Not only do drones allow easier monitoring, but they also provide a more comprehensive assessment method. As drones can potentially produce a constant stream of data, scientists can efficiently compare the transformation of any site over time. Coastal mapping, deforestation evaluation and other conservation activities are certainly made easier by the employment of drones.

Their positive contribution to wildlife conservation does not end here. Drones are being used to track animals as well. They can produce high-quality data on endangered species, including dangerous animals.

An example of this is astro-ecology, which combines astronomical detection tools with drones to create imagery and video footage of animals. The innovative technique has been effective so far, although it is still in a developing phase. The astro-ecology method was first tested in South Africa last year to monitor riverine rabbits - one of the most endangered species of mammal in the world. An employed drone was able to fly very close to the ground and provided five sightings of the rabbits – quite an impressive number, considering there have only been around 1,000 in total.
Drones are also being deployed in the protection of the environment and animals against illegal practices. Air monitoring offers a broader supervision and allows for faster intervention against endangering activities than other methods.

Image adapted from original by freeegoooMeasuring, photographing, monitoring: the possibilities are vast. On an environmental level, we have just started to explore the virtually infinite applications of drone technology. The fight against climate change could benefit from the employment of drones - especially in vulnerable areas - and the scientific community seems open to this idea. Certainly, there are many ways in which drones are already helping to protect the environment. It seems they may be indispensible tools in helping us ‘save the planet’.

By Erika Mastrorosa - Online Journalism Intern

Frontier runs conservation, developmentteaching and adventure travel projects in over 50 countries worldwide - so join us and explore the world!

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