Drones- Are they the New Frontier?
The advent of Drones is due largely to the remarkable advances in technology: tiny MEMS sensors, small GPS modules, incredibly powerful processors, and a range of digital radios which are all getting better and cheaper at an unprecedented rate, make these small, inexpensive and easy to use drones available to the average person. Drones are no longer just for recreation and the amateur photographer and remote plane operator. As the drone designers and manufacturers create more sophisticated and long-range drones, there’s a growing presence of emerging software companies developing applications for commercial use.
The Forestry Industry is using drones to assess deforestation. A company called BioCarbon Engineering has designed a drone to quickly and efficiently plant trees. The goal is to help rebuild global forests that have been decimated by lumbering, mining, agriculture and urban expansion. Company scientists have developed a prototype drone that uses a tiny cannon to shoot pods containing germinated seeds as well as nutrients and fertilizer to support the tree as it begins to grow. The pod breaks open when it hits the ground, spilling the germinated seeds and nutrients.
In Agriculture drones can provide farmers with three types of detailed views. First, seeing a crop from the air can reveal patterns that expose everything from irrigation problems to soil variation and even pest and fungal infestations that aren’t apparent at eye level. Second, airborne cameras can take multispectral images, capturing data from the infrared as well as the visual spectrum, which can be combined to create a view of the crop that highlights differences between healthy and distressed plants in a way that can’t be seen with the naked eye. Finally, a drone can survey a crop every week, every day, or even every hour. Combined to create a time-series animation, that imagery can show changes in the crop, revealing trouble spots or opportunities for better crop management.
Engineering firms are using drones to assess flood and fire damage on hillsides above roadways and bridges. There are various survey applications and software programs that can more accurately calculate where markers are and truly see the land. Insurance and natural disaster response, search and rescue, mining, research, and infrastructure are also beginning to use drones on a larger scale. This trend is expected to grow even more when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) sets concrete regulations, likely sometime in 2016. 120 meters, which is the regulatory ceiling in the United States for unmanned aircraft operating without special clearance from the FAA.
The first drone delivery to a vessel at sea was successfully completed by Maersk Tankers in late January. The delivery took place near Kalundborg in Denmark and was a test. Using drones to deliver urgent parcels to vessels and conduct inspections has a big cost- and time-saving potential for Maersk Tankers. At a recent Drone X Conference in San Francisco Markus Kuhn, Supply Chain Manager at Maersk Tankers and part of Maersk Group Procurement Marine announced that Maersk is seeking companies to develop and implement drones capable of withstanding the harsh winds at sea and indestructible underwater drones for tanker inspections. This is a new territory and a great opportunity for innovative drone designers and software companies to present their ideas to the largest shipping company in the world.
Drones are getting a green makeover as environmentalists and earth scientists put the unmanned vehicles to a variety of eco-friendly jobs, from studying wildlife and polar ice melting to monitoring water for harmful bacteria. Scientist are monitoring ice melt in the Arctic, where drones will flit to places that icebreakers and manned aircraft don’t dare venture. Underwater drones are being used to observe the deep water habits of great white sharks, which scientists knew very little about until they found a way to follow the big fish around. By attaching an electronic tag to a shark scientists were able to program their underwater drone to follow it around, sometimes getting very close. On a recent mission, the drone came back with some stunning, and completely unexpected data, on how great whites hunt. The drone, which was equipped with five cameras, showed some very frightening footage of what happened when two young sharks decided that the unmanned vehicle might make a nice snack: chomp chomp! Documenting a deep water attack and the vertical speed when sharks make an attack shows everything from the perspective of the shark. Scientists believe the sharks are confused when they encounter a surfer or kayaker and so they say, hey, let’s take an exploratory bite.”
Flying drones are also being used by groups trying to protect whales and other big mammals from being killed by hunters. Each year the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society sends out its drones to watch over pilot whales. If the whales get too close to the Faroe Islands, where locals have yearly hunts, small boats are sent out to chase the whales away. “Once we locate the whales we drive them back out to sea,” said Paul Watson co-founder of Sea Shepherd. “Two years ago from June to September there were 1,300 whales killed. Last year we chased away about a dozen pods. While we were patrolling only 32 were killed.”
Drones..the new frontier? You bet! What was once only military aviation technology is now on its way to becoming an integral part of everyday business and conservation on land, in the sea, and of course in the sky!