While drones have undoubtedly become an essential and efficient tool for ongoing environmental research and search and rescue operations drones could do much more for scientific research.
Today Drones are helpful in monitoring forests, rivers, farms and wildlife. They can track the regeneration of woodland; help farmers decide where to apply fertilizer or pesticide. They can fly swiftly into disaster zones. In Mozambique this March, drones revealed flooding, damage and survivors in the wake of Cyclone Idai.
Currently drones can only be flown for up to an hour before a recharge. Other stumbling blocks are regulations, data standards and lack of processing algorithms. Scientists need to work with regulators and software developers to improve laws and data products. Drone technology experts Nicholas C. Coops, Tristan R. H. Goodbody and Lin Cao. propose four steps towards improvement in a Nature editorial.
Legal frameworks controlling the civilian uses of drones vary widely around the world as per https://uavcoach.com/drone-laws. Most European Union nations, Canada and the United States, have strict laws detailing drone. Parameters like pilot proficiency, hardware registration, flight specifications and insurance are basic requirements. Some nations lack legislation entirely. And some other countries, including Cuba, Iran and Morocco, ban drones altogether. Others, such as India, are opening up markets slowly by regulating only a few uses.
Such regulatory confusion deters many scientists from conducting research with drones, especially in cities or areas that have heavy air traffic. Such inflexibility limits drone applications, increases costs and hampers innovation.
Misuse of drones is perhaps the greatest threat to widening their use. Disapproval from the public or funders can lead to tighter regulations or bans. Concerns have been raised over their impacts on wildlife. Drone flights have been illegal in all US National Parks since August 2014, in part because of their effects on wildlife. Earlier that year, for instance, an illegal drone in Utah’s Zion National Park scattered herds of bighorn sheep and separated several young from adults. In 2018, the grounding of commercial air traffic by rogue drone operators in the United Kingdom led the government to extend no-fly zones around airports, limit flight heights and demand more training for drone pilots.
On the one hand drone swarms for military uses such as surveillance are being developed by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and hold promise for science, and speeding up data collection over large areas. On the other hand current US regulations require drones to be in the line of sight of a single operator. This effectively prevents swarms from being flown, because it is impossible to ensure that all drones in a swarm can be seen by one operator.
Standardizing drone laws across regions and countries would simplify enforcement and promote consistency. There is progress: in November 2018, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) released a draft of the First International Drone Standards for a short period of public comment. The standards focus on: classification, design, manufacture, operation (including maintenance) and safety management. When the standards are finally released, scientists must provide feedback on them.
Improved and increased drone maneuvering and control
Systems for directing drone flights need improvement so that they are able to protect public safety, privacy and can avoid collisions. Regulatory restrictions should be programmed in and updated as legislation evolves. Collision-avoidance systems installation on drones is an option.
Simple forms of air-traffic tracking are being integrated. Take the example of China’s civil aviation administration uses two cloud-computing systems which registers and monitors drone ownership and flights — U-cloud and U-care. A drone equipped with a control module can access the systems, which warn operators about flight zones and speed limits.
Drone developers, such as the world’s largest, DJI, in Shenzhen, China, are beginning to show regulatory and safety hazards on maps in the control software.
Cooperation between manufacturers and legislative bodies will improve the availability of these data.
Permission to bypass these ‘geofences’ is granted on a case-by-case basis; users must demonstrate in advance that their activity minimizes risks to the public, property and wildlife.
As the technological capacity and spatial coverage of these systems improve, regulations should be harmonized across regions. Quality-control testing must be ongoing to ensure that the regulations perform as intended and as advertised.
Prolonged drone flight duration
Drones are still predominantly powered by conventional batteries which limit flight times to 15–60 minutes thus capping flight distances. Drones are typically used for small-scale studies, such as imaging a stand of trees or counting animals in a valley. Scientists looking to monitor larger areas, greater than 100 hectares, for example, are forced to swap in multiple battery sets.
Efficient solid-state lithium-ion cells are being developed. In order to increase length of flight the type of air frame weight, the power draw of on-board electronics and sensors, hardware aerodynamics are being worked upon. Shrinking batteries while improving the efficiency of on-board electronics would help to reduce weight and lengthen flight times.
Drones fitted with photovoltaic cells are becoming a reality so that flight times can be extended. Also promising is the development of in-flight networks that can recharge batteries from nearby ground stations through Wi-Fi and ultrasound signals.
Development of data tools
Drones are often flown repeatedly along transects to gather data over an area or to track changes. When such craft are flown below 100 metres — the typical ceiling for unregulated use — the resolution of images can be as fine as 3 centimetres, enough to identify the species of individual trees, shrubs and animals.
Software available for performing these tasks including algorithms need to be standardized. Consensus is required on optimal parameters, such as elevation, image dimensions and flight speed, or methods for reconstructing views or processing structural and spectral information. Although open-source software is being developed, researchers need to work with software developers to develop algorithms that suit the many goals of scientific data gathering from drones.
In conclusion these experts call for more dialogue and collaboration between legislators, users, developers and manufacturers of drones to expand their use for science and to democratize remote sensing.
Upcoming meetings of the ISO technical committee in London in October and Nanjing in November, as well as remote-sensing conferences such as those of the IEEE Geoscience and Remote Sensing Society, offer opportunities to begin this conversation.
Citation: Four steps to extend drone use in research, Nicholas C. Coops, Tristan R. H. Goodbody and Lin Cao., https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-02474-y
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