From Aerial Combat to Climate Change
How Veteran Drone Operators are now using the Airspace for Good
The limitless possibilities and popularity of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones have skyrocketed over the last decade. From Amazon Prime Air beginning to deliver packages by drone to aiding in news and disaster response, drones are becoming more and more a part of our everyday lives. While the public use of drones is fairly new, it may surprise you to learn that drone use in the military first began as far back as the mid-1850s, when Austria attacked Venice using unmanned balloons stuffed with explosives. Although unsuccessful, this imaginative use of technology paved the way for the next 170 years of drone development.
Drones both military and commercial have come a long way since that first 1849 Austrian balloon experiment. Take the United States Air Forces Global Hawk for example which came onto the scene in 2001 at the start of the US-Iraq wars. A few of these drones’ capabilities include the ability to fly completely remote across the Pacific Ocean and to collect high-resolution imagery day or night from an altitude of 65,000 ft. While the very definition of a drone is to be autonomous or not have a pilot, drones still require operators who launch and observe the drone. Drone operators are highly trained in imagery analysis and use these skills for the purposes of reconnaissance, target acquisition, object identification, and noticing the slightest changes in their surroundings. What happens however to the thousands of trained drone operators as they leave the military, and how are these skills being used on the commercial side?
Private and public companies still need drone operators as means of protection and information gathering, although what information is needed and who or what needs protecting is drastically different. Instead of protecting soldiers from incoming attacks, they are now being used to protect forests and firefighters from spreading wildfires, protect farmers and agriculture from pests and disease, such as in our work with CropIn, protect wildlife from illegal poaching and so much more. The information that can be quickly and efficiently gathered by these drones saves valuable time, cost, and manpower, which is allowing companies to take on new and exciting projects that previously weren’t realistic or feasible. One such new and exciting example of this is Space4Good’s involvement with team Re-Forest-ER in the 15 million dollar XPRIZE Rainforest competition funded by the Alana foundation, which is focused on the discovery, understanding, and preservation of the Rainforest.
(Drone Photo of the Amazon Rainforest) (Data set from the Ecological Observation Network)
Drone use has elevated the possibilities of surveying rainforest biodiversity to a whole new level. No longer must hundreds and even thousands of researchers trek tirelessly through this dense and complex ecosystem to get a better understanding of its contents. Using a combination of LIDAR lasers and high-resolution RGB imagery we can now find hidden, overgrown or nearly buried evidence that may have been invisible to the naked eye. This allows for easily delineating temperature differences, precipitation, plant health, and so much more. This process is becoming more and more automated using algorithms such as DeepForest which uses a model pre-trained on over 30 million algorithmically generated tree crowns from 22 forests and fine-tuned using 10,000 hand-labelled crowns from six forests. As more data is put into these algorithms the model becomes more accurate and less and less manpower will be needed to get a clear picture and better understanding of these magnificent forests.
So how is it that getting a better understanding and unlocking the true potential of these forests is going to be used for good? Firstly, it has vast potential uses for biodiversity conservation and ecological monitoring. We can’t conserve what we don’t know about, this technology allows us to not only identify different plant and animal species, but to also monitor threats, changes, and trends in their environment. Next, it has many proven benefits in the field of agriculture and forestry. This includes 3D mapping for carbon storage and understanding the biomass of our forests, such as Space4Good’s work with the Rabobank ACORN Marketplace, combating deforestation and illegal logging with Amnesty International, detecting soil and plant health resulting in yield prediction, and so much more. Other sectors where drone technology is vastly improving our lives include climate & infrastructure and peace & justice by conducting flood risk mapping, fire alerts, air quality detection, landslide risk mapping, and damage assessments.
Recently, Space4Good had the privilege of working with a U.S. Army veteran drone operator to see how the skills and training he acquired can be applied to so many wonderful up-and-coming industries, the good that’s coming from commercial drone use, and the growing demand in this field. We are hopeful for the opportunities that await us all. With so many new and exciting uses for this technology being discovered every year, the future holds endless possibilities for how drones will continue to benefit us and our planet.
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