Flying environmental sensors

As the world becomes more sensitive to climate change, the importance of environmental monitoring is rocketing. Monitoring hyper-local parameters has become a necessity for cities and rural areas that are pressured to track air quality, heat waves, and possible extreme weather events to safeguard public health and mitigate unfortunate effects through prompt intervention.

Environmental sensors are typically installed in dedicated weather stations or mounted on existing streetlight poles, then connected to the city network to share data and provide a full picture of ground and air conditions, thus supporting informative and real-time decisions.

However, having sensors on the field may not always be the most viable or convenient option. Think for instance of large green areas and forest monitoring: tree sensors are quite commonly used to monitor temperature, humidity, light, insect and wildlife movements, or to early detect fires. But placing those sensors can prove difficult on high trees, or inconvenient in cluttered forests.

A few years ago, the Aerial Robotics Lab at Imperial College London committed to a pilot project using drones to shoot sensor-containing darts  onto very high trees or hidden branches, deploying dense networks of sensors to get granular data. Other research projects leveraged sensor-equipped drones to fly over very large, hard-to-navigate biomes like the Amazon rainforest and track key environmental and ecological parameters.

Drone-based solutions can also complement environmental sensors installed in cities and improve air quality or urban heat mapping. A team of US researchers from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and the University of Michigan is studying the urban heat island effect through innovative 3D models created from the thermal comparison of streetscapes taken by drones. Their goal is to support city managers, landscape architecture firms, and construction companies in tackling urban heat with data-driven decisions about tree coverage, pavement and building materials, or green rooftops.

Drones can even be beneficial in climate and natural disaster monitoring. Together with geospatial and image recognition technologies, they are implemented in several projects to collect environmental data and improve the understanding of potential catastrophes, favoring a quicker emergency response and the definition of effective preventive measures.

Notable experiences are being carried out by the Lincolnshire Resilience Forum in the UK, while the US Federal Aviation Administration is currently working on a new regulation for drones to fly beyond the so-called visual line of sight. The expected regulatory approval would be crucial for nationwide Drones as First Responder (DFR), using drones equipped with various sensors, cameras, and payloads to perform and support in critical tasks in emergency situations. About 15 DFR programs are currently operating in the US with specific waivers from the FAA.



Photo credit: Jaromír Kavan from Unsplash

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