Science

Flying for Good: Drones Save People and the Planet

Zach Budgor Writer
Drone over field

Researchers are turning to drones — flying robots with sensors — to help solve serious challenges.

In October 1991, a grass fire outside Berkeley, CA erupted into a 5-acre blaze. At first, damage seemed minimal, but the next morning strong winds rekindled flames. The inferno drove southwest, carving a massive swath across suburbs and highways. Some 25 people died, 150 more were injured, and $1.5 million of property damage ensued.

The firefighters could only work with what they saw on the ground, but thick black smoke choked visibility and meant firefighters couldn’t get ahead of the firestorm’s movement. Traffic snarled fire trucks; power lines went down; clashing wind patterns made the fire unpredictable.

Tim Ball of the UC Berkeley-based Fire Urgency Estimator in Geosynchronous Orbit (FUEGO) project thinks having drones in the air could prevent disasters like the Oakland firestorm.

“A small, inexpensive drone could have found that hot spot and quickly guided the Oakland firefighters to put it out… and that fire never would have happened,” said Ball.

fuego vertical envelope

Drones are becoming increasingly powerful computational platforms that can fly. Equipped with cameras, sensors and artificial intelligence, many drones can see and avoid objects autonomously, capture HD photos and video from a bird’s eye view or tight spaces.

These smart, flying robots are helping farmers manage crops, aircraft makers inspect new planes and shaping the future of transportation. Researchers are also using them for social good or to study the environment and wildlife.

New uses for drones expanded dramatically in 2016 fueled by human creativity, technology advancements and investment. In the U.S., for example, the White House introduced an initiative to boost funding to explore scientific, economic, and social benefits drones can bring to the public and private entities. All of this is driving new uses for drones aimed at making positive impact on the planet and saving human lives.

Protecting crops with 21st century agriculture

The potato virus Y infection in Russet Norkotah is just one example of how farmers can lose an entire season of crops due to imprecise technology. Known for masking symptoms, it’s a sickness that is undetectable to the naked eye—until it spreads then it’s too late.

Donna Delparte

Dr. Donna Delparte’s ongoing University of Idaho project to assess sickness in potato crops uses drones as an alternative to expensive, unwieldy, and inexact satellite imagery.

“It’ll save growers a lot of money if they catch this virus early,” said Delparte.

The resolution available with satellite imagery still can’t get finer than four to five potato plants per pixel, or 50×50 centimeters. But with drones, Delparte can survey crops at a 3×3 centimeter resolution. This makes all the difference for a project that’s looking at anomalies on a plant-by-plant level.

Right now, Delparte and her team use Steadidrone quadX drones modded with cameras and GPS technology.

Dr. Donna Delparte
University of Idaho’s Dr. Donna Delparte is using drones to help potato crops.

Most recently, they’ve started looking for industry partners that will help commercialize their setup so potato growers everywhere can save crops and cash.

Delivering medicine to remote countries

A fleet of custom-built “Zip” drones are now bringing blood to remote areas of western Rwanda. The innovation is a promising solution to one of the biggest issues facing aid efforts in remote, rural areas of the world: the lack of infrastructure for transporting supplies.

San Francisco tech company Zipline has partnered with the Rwandan government to service 21 critical areas and 7 million people that are difficult to access by traditional means.

Zipline’s 25-pound drones are guided from California via Rwanda’s 3G cell network, have a range of 150 kilometers, and drop supplies via parachute. Hospitals can order delivery with a text message and a Zip can be there in an average of 15 minutes. Readying the drones for their return to Zipline’s distribution center takes about five minutes.

Having caught the attention of the White House, Zipline hopes to kick off deliveries in the US starting in Maryland, Washington, and Nevada, in addition to expanding service to all of Rwanda.

Keeping an eye on the Great Barrier Reef

Some of the most endangered environments on the planet are also the most remote and dangerous for human beings. Dr. Karen Joyce works in the Great Barrier Reef, using her drones as an eye-in-the-sky to avoid the mangroves and crocodiles. The new technology allows her to stitch together images that map out coral, algae, sand, and other underwater features in order to measure their health. With thermal cameras, for example, Joyce can measure temperature and predict how the coral will react.

“We’ve been doing this with satellites for years, but the data from a drone provides so much more detail,” Joyce said.

She’s partial to flying the 3D Robotics Solo with a sensor payload in its accessory bay, but for bigger jobs Joyce uses Aeronavics drones: the Bot, with a DSLR/thermal camera attached, and an Icon that was specially modified to carry up to 77 lbs of high-performance imaging sensors.

Joyce believes that drones provide an appealing entry point into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers.

“[With drones] it’s possible to reignite interest and learning in STEM, which is critical for innovations in the future.”

Reinventing fire detection and prevention

It’s no secret that California’s current drought and fire-prone landscapes has dire environmental consequences. In instances like the Oakland fire, early detection can make all the difference.

Mouser Electronics Inc.’s Project First Responders program uses autonomous, cloud-based drones to be the eye in the sky, providing real-time video, heat maps, GPS and other data to help agencies manage search and rescue operations, wildfires and natural disasters.

Currently in the works at UC Berkeley, a project is being lead by Carl Pennypacker and Tim Ball aimed at using drones to help firefighter quickly understand a fire to they can apply the right strategy, right away.

Drones can help monitor heat signatures in fire-prone areas.

“The biggest problem with containing a fire is spotting it,” explained Ball.

Relying on limited personnel, drones can help firefighters spot flare ups by collect ground-level data. That data can be quickly analyzed to generate predictive models for assessing risks before calamities happen.

The first drone FUEGO hopes to put in the sky is the twin-engine Drone America Phoebus, which has the muscle to carry the Fuego sensor payload.

“I don’t think there’s a better way to do this than with inexpensive unmanned vehicles like drones,” said Pennypacker.

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