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26 June 2019

Drone technology helping to tackle global climate change, one flight at a time

by Joanne Murray UK Drones Assurance lead

The issue of climate change has never been so topical, with the effects of a changing climate increasingly affecting communities across the world, from rising sea levels to changing patterns of extreme hot and cold weather. Concern from the public is rising rapidly across geographies as effects start to impact peoples’ lives and livelihoods. Here in the UK, we are also experiencing significant changes. The Met Office's temperature series shows that the 21st century has so far been warmer than the previous three centuries in central England. As much as we may have enjoyed the joint-hottest English summer last year, it foreshadows a more worrying outlook once we look beyond World Cup fever, paddling pools and BBQs.

As governments and businesses across the world grapple with their respective responsibilities in tackling one of the major challenges of our time, on a smaller scale scientists are embracing drone technology to learn more about our environment and how we can best protect it. Below we illustrate groundbreaking developments with examples from cutting edge renewable energy to helping to plant trees.

From planting trees...

What is the issue? Deforestation is occurring at an alarming rate. The WEF estimates that 48 football fields of forest are lost every minute. Hand planting trees cannot keep up - around 9 billion trees are planted globally every year, compared to the 15 billion that are cut down. This is where drones come in.

How can drones help? Drones, such as those developed by BioCarbon Engineering, can plant trees at a much faster rate than humans - by firing biodegradable pods filled with a germinated seed and nutrients into the ground, they can plant as many as 100,000 trees in a day. And it is not just this efficiency that is valuable - drones are also used to collect data about topography and soil conditions that determine the best locations to plant seeds.

How is this helping tackle climate change? Trees are essential in the fight against climate change - absorbing CO2 in the atmosphere and replacing it with oxygen. It is estimated that deforestation accounts for 17% of global warming (WEF). Drone-enabled tree planting has the potential to make significant strides towards tackling climate change.

...to helping install and maintain renewable energy sources

What is the issue? The cost of generating power from solar and wind has fallen dramatically in recent years - estimates from the International Renewable Energy Agency estimate respective falls in cost of 73% and 23% since 2010. But there still exists a significant opportunity to encourage a widespread move away towards renewable energy. This is where drones come in.

How can drones help? Drones have the potential to transform the planning, construction and maintenance of renewable energy sources. For solar energy panels, drones can use thermal imagery to plan the optimal positions and 3D models that reduce measurement errors and assist maintenance. For wind turbines, drones can collect inspection-grade images to inspect faults; speed up maintenance and reduce overall turbine downtime. Not to mention the health and safety benefits of reducing the need for dangerous and costly rope access and preventing working at height.

How is this helping to tackle climate change? Fossil fuels are one of the leading causes of global climate change. The need for investment in renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, has never been more pressing and is essential to limit global temperature increases this century to within 2 degrees. Drones have the potential to encourage this growth.

The drone is much more agile and precise than it’s older sibling the helicopter, with a much smaller carbon footprint. This means scientists and environmentalists have better access to data which is giving more unique insights than ever before, at a much lower cost. So with this emerging technology comes a new tool to increase our understanding of the world we live in, allowing us to best manage our precious resources at a time when it’s never been more crucial.

by Joanne Murray UK Drones Assurance lead