Two days ago, a United States military drone operation in Pakistan killed another Taliban official. The mission was only the latest in a series of more than 350 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004; Drones play an increasingly important role in US Military operations, where they are used both for reconnaissance and remote attacks over the Middle East’s notoriously difficult terrain.
While their omnipresence in media coverage of the War on Terror may have permanently associated the word “drone” with “military,” the ingenious pieces of winged technology actually play diverse roles in civilian life, as well. Much as satellites, digital images, and other pieces of military technology have trickled down into everyday life, drones, too, are making the transition.
We’ve long understood the usefulness of eyes in the sky. That’s why the launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik satellite spurred a flurry of nationalistic anxiety and innovation. Today, we ecologists use a slough of satellites to collect images from all over Earth’s surface. These images allow us to measure things like changes in sea ice cover, the extent of deforestation, and the amount of photosynthesis that’s going on in the ocean. We also fly airplanes loaded with special sensors to map plant species, detect wildlife, and track animal populations.
These technologies have transformed ecology by giving us new spatial tools with which to conduct our science. Need to calculate the surface area of the planet covered by desert? Break out the satellite images. Want to know how many penguin pairs are nesting in that Antarctic colony? Take a magnifying glass to your aerial photographs.
But as exciting as all these new data sources are, we still hunger for more. Even as technology advances, data collection still requires a carefully gauged tradeoff of financial expense, spatial resolution, and time-consuming leg-work on the ground. For example, satellite images, while astounding in their global coverage, usually don’t have the resolution to pick out individual trees – or even icebergs. Manned aircraft are incredibly expensive to build and fly. And walking hundreds of transects over difficult terrain can provide heaps of useful, specific data but little overall perspective.
Enter the drone.
Rebranded “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles” or UAVs for their nonmilitary lives, they range in size from a few ounces to a few dozen pounds. Price scales accordingly, but perfectly serviceable models can be had for just a couple thousand dollars – orders of magnitude cheaper than manned planes or helicopters. Because no human lives are at stake during their operation, UAVs can undertake riskier tasks, like tracking forest fires or flying into the face of hurricanes. Their size and maneuverability means they can fly lower, capturing higher-resolution data than satellites or even airplanes.
Of course, much of the promise of UAVs is still just that – promises. As the vehicles themselves become more efficient, and the sensor equipment they carry becomes lightweight and more affordable, their usage will quickly expand. Indeed, they’re already being used, both for basic ecological science, and for conservation biology. South African game reserves use drones to track the movements of poachers; the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society uses them to track the Japanese whaling fleet.
Domestically, UAVs will likely see a lot of use in America’s agricultural heartland. They can be put to very practical use by farmers, who can use the drones to quickly survey their crops for insect damage or drought stress, or track animal herds as they roam grazing land. By giving farmers the means to rapidly and efficiently respond to changes on their land, drones will save time, money, and natural resources.
Drones can also be used for a variety of other environmental monitoring purposes, like tracking compliance with regulations, monitoring pipelines for signs of spills, and keeping tabs on the spread of pollutants. And animal rights activists are already planning flyovers of factory farms to monitor animal treatment practices.
Obviously, the use of drones could quickly get out of hand. Virginia and Idaho are putting laws on the books to protect citizen privacy; other groups worry about what new clutter in US airspace might mean for the safety of manned aircraft.
The Federal Aviation Administration is slated to begin issuing commercial permits for UAVs in 2015. Many legal battles over privacy will surely take place before, and after, that deadline. But either way, expect the use of drones in science – and elsewhere – to increase exponentially.
Holly welcomes reader questions, comments, and model airplane designs via email at hollyvm “at” stanford “dot” edu.