Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPAs) can be useful to firefighters struggling with wildfires, but they have many other environmentally friendly uses. Environmental or wildlife monitoring was actually at the origin of some of the world’s most famous RPAs.
Indeed, Insitu’s Seascan unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) platform, on which is based the ScanEagle, was initially conceived to track dolphins and tuna from fishing boats and so being sure that the fishing would be “dolphin safe.” It is interesting that Insitu is still marketing its drones for environmental management applications. The major ongoing programme is the monitoring of the Arctic ice flow.
Defense Industry Daily highlights that on July 26th, the FAA issued its first UAV restricted category type for flights over Alaska’s waters for such mission. It seems that the end user of the survey is an energy company looking for the feasibility of exploitation projects and the impact it could have on wildlife. It is also used for mammal monitoring to “help drive comparative analysis of combined real-time and historic data sets.”
Various ongoing wildlife protection and monitoring programs currently use drones. During a 2013 Ted Global talk, environmental systems researcher Lian Pin Koh spoke about “conservation drones.” The scientist currently uses a $2,000 RPA over the Indonesian forest to track Orangutan nests and monitor species population. Traditionally, this mission was conducted only from the ground. It took lot of time and according to him $250,000 to perform. Now, the cheap aircraft can travel up to 50km per flight and Lian Pin Koh is working “to develop algorithms that could automatically detect orangutan nests from among thousands of photos.” Besides the relative low cost of the platform, its ease of use is its second advantage. The drone is programmed on an open source Google Maps interface.
The use of drones is more and more spread in park rangers units throughout the world. In Nepal, it helps to deter tiger and rhino poachers in National parks. In Colorado, United States, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife teamed up with the US Geological Survey to evaluate whether small RPAs can “save state wildlife managers time, money and enhanced alternative to gather greater Sage-Grouse data.” On the global scale, the World Wildlife Fund was recently awarded by Google $5 milion to set up anti-poaching projects using RPAs.
Over the ocean, Insitu offers its solution to help large scale commercial fishing operations. The company states that its “solutions permit fishing operations to direct fleet assets toward most rewarding patches of ocean so they can fill their holds faster and optimize their tracks to minimize their full oil requirements.” But users of such systems should be careful to not go into restricted fishing areas… because coastguards are acquiring drones too!
The Island Nation of Palau, with a 630,000 square foot exclusive economic zone and only one patrol boat, is now seeking to acquire some RPAs. The most generally cited benefits of RPAs for such missions are their relatively low cost (you just need a tactical drone), and their capacity to cover wide areas in difficult environments. The fact that it does not put lives at risk has also to be mentioned. For instance, in Idaho, the survey of Chinook Salmon nests on the Snake River has long been performed with helicopters. Unfortunately, due to strong winds in the canyon, accidents have occurred, one led to fatalities. RPAs are being assessed as an alternative.
Finally, RPAs can also be used for climate monitoring. In this area, the NASA appears as a pioneer. Since 2010, it has been using a Global Hawk to perform scientific studies on weather change. The most recent projects are the Global Hawk Pacific (GloPac) environmental science campaign, the Winter Storms and Pacific Atmospheric Rivers and the Hurricane Severe Storm Sentinel (HS3). This last mission needs Global Hawk’s endurance and high altitude performance for live monitoring of tropical storms or hurricanes. The HALE (high altitude, long endurance) RPA is equipped with instruments to measure atmospheric humidity, pressure, temperature, aerosols and wind speeds. It has an “overstorm payload” composed of a Doppler radar and a multifrequency interferometric radiometer, among other tools. It helps scientists and meteorologists to predict storm intensity. The RPA features a Vaisal AVAPS Dropsonde system enabling it to eject small sensors tied to parachutes that drift down inside the storm.