Drones comprise unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that range from the size of airplanes to about the size of a bumblebee. These aircraft systems are operated by a ground controller via wireless communication (usually radio signals). The majority of small drones are powered by lithium-polymer batteries, and large drones may use airplane engines. Many drones are made of carbon fiber, for its properties of lightness and maneuverability in air. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires that drones remain within the operator’s line of sight. The operators of larger drones that travel over longer distances must obtain special licenses that grant them the right to fly outside of the line of sight.
Drones are equipped with different payloads or equipment for a variety of purposes, including:
- Identification of plants and animals and collection of aerial data using digital cameras
- Detection of heat in water bodies and organisms using thermal cameras
- Identification of the features of plants and water by measuring reflected light using hyperspectral imaging and to interpret a wide range of wavelengths
- Calculation of the height of an object and the distance to it using LiDAR technology
- Monitoring of rivers for flooding prediction
- Identification of areas that are being illegally logged
- Monitoring of the spread of algae in water bodies and saltwater intrusion
- Identification of plant species and detection of tree disease in forests.
Drones are used in the energy industry to identify methane leaks in oil and gas production, as well as to monitor pipelines and wind and solar installations. In addition, drones are used to track sea mammals, counting animal populations, and monitoring enforcement in marine conservation areas. For instance, drones deployed by Duke University in Durham, North Carolina have shown that the population of gray seals around the New England and Canadian coasts have increased following conservation efforts. Moreover, researchers at Ocean Alliance, a Massachusetts-based whale conservation organization, have successfully captured spray from a whale's blowhole using drones flown at a low altitude above it. The collected DNA was then analyzed to study the whale’s microbiome, stress, and pregnancy hormones. Drones are also used to monitor endangered species and to combat illegal poaching activities.
British Geological Survey (BGS) specializes in the development of drone technology for various research projects, including:
- Developing prototype drones for greenhouse gas detection and software to model the source of emissions
- Capturing high-resolution, overlapping images to construct 3-D models of landforms such as landslides and sinkholes to gain insight into the changes they undergo over time
- Employing multispectral data in the NERC Natural Flood Management research project Landwise to examine the variation of vegetation and soil moisture and how it affects flooding
- The H2020 SECURe (Subsurface Evaluation of Carbon capture and storage and Unconventional Risk) project, in which BGS worked on the advancement of the ability to monitor gas detection at carbon sequestration and shale gas sites
- The H2020 GEMex (Cooperation in Geothermal energy research Europe-Mexico for development of Enhanced Geothermal Systems and Superhot Geothermal Systems) project, in which BGS collected and developed thermal data from drones to characterize a geothermal resource
- A project funded by the UK Government department Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) to assess the viability of using drones to detect mining waste contamination
ObliMapper is a tool for capturing, handling, and analyzing images designed to combine orthophotography with oblique photography in drones. Its 360 degree aerial view enables the software to transform visual data into actionable intelligence. ObliMapper's process involves four primary stages: flight planning, image capture, processing, and analyzing. The video below provides an overview of how the system works.