Doug Bonderud

Apr 5th 2018

Warming Up? Climate Change Drones Offer Environmental Insight


Drone registrations are on the rise. Citing a report from the Federal Aviation Administration, Fortune noted that more than 670,000 unmanned aerial vehicles were registered with the government agency this year, as both hobbyists and corporations look to leverage the advantages of flight.

According to Cornell University, there’s another potential use of UAVs on the horizon: climate change drones are designed to capture and relay critical data about the rate and severity of climate shifts. Now, scientists are warming up to the idea of drone-filled skies. Here’s why.

Reflective Reasoning

The rate and risk of climate change are tied to albedo: a measure of how much solar energy is absorbed, or reflected, by surfaces on the Earth. For example, snow-covered areas reflect sunlight and decrease overall warmth, while surfaces such as grass or asphalt better absorb heat. The Cornell study noted that albedo is currently measured using satellite imagery and sensor towers, but these options are non-mobile, making local comparisons impossible.

At Cornell, doctoral candidate Charlotte Levy and her team overcame the characteristic weight restrictions on the drone by using only a downward-facing sensor on the vehicle itself and placing the upward-facing sensor in a nearby field. The results? Mobile climate change measurements and the ability to discover where proactive forest planting could have positive impacts on the local environment by reducing heat loss and carbon capture.

Learning More

And that’s not all drones are doing. As noted by AG Web, after a climate change innovation grant announcement last year, software developer Pix4D and drone manufacturer Parrot received more than 250 research proposals. Some of those selected are now using aerial vehicles to detect variations in grassland phenology, modulate wildlife extinctions in the African drylands and monitor the impact of insects in Mediterranean forests. The big advantage here? These climate change drones can gather data with minimal disruption to the natural environment, limiting the chance of corrupted or human-influenced data.

Consider the work being done on Antarctic mosses. The Conversation reported that these plants are sensitive to even minor changes in their local environment, making them an excellent predictor of emerging climate shifts. But monitoring these mosses is difficult, since their remote location requires human researchers to traverse, and potentially disturb, miles of difficult terrain. Drones, meanwhile, can fly in to get the data they need without causing undue environmental impact. In addition, the use of drones expands mapping and data collection areas while reducing the total cost and potential risk to researchers.

Developing Drones

Unmanned aerial vehicles occupy a key intersection between autonomous device and human interference. While they’re ultimately operated by human beings, they limit the overall impact on sensitive ecosystems and return critical data about environmental adaptations. These climate change drones are a natural next step, given the increasing focus on Earth-based science; NASA already operates a high-altitude, long-duration aerial science vessel known as the Global Hawk, and scientists remain on the ground in far-flung research outputs gathering and analyzing climate data. Custom-built drones provide a way to quickly collect data, make local comparisons and limit the impact on natural flora and fauna.

The market for drones is shifting as online enterprises look to leverage corporate potential and private users take to the skies. The next generation of scientists, meanwhile, are developing ways to make drones fly farther and faster and find key data to mitigate the effects of long-term climate change.