It’s all hands on deck as the impact of climate change threatens life as we know it. Projects all around the world are leveraging innovative technologies to both understand the problem and create the best solutions, but one type of technology, in particular, is rising to the challenge.
Drones play a critical role in combating climate change and its effects with end-to-end applications across every sector. The image resolution and documentation accuracy of drones surpass that of satellites while covering large expanses more quickly and cost-effectively than manual efforts. Drones can access areas that would be dangerous or impossible for human surveyors (unstable terrain, aerial, and underwater), while avoiding the destruction of human and machine disturbances in these delicate areas. The ability to efficiently monitor, measure, and map in great detail enables data-driven decisions. Furthermore, drones can, in many cases, single-handedly execute and deliver the solution.
Reforestation is another key application for drones. According to Our World in Data, approximately 15 billion trees are cut down per year over the past couple of decades. Not only does the loss of 15 billion carbon filters contribute to global warming, but this problem is further exacerbated by the carbon dioxide generated by deforestation machinery. Currently, the quickest and cheapest way to sequester carbon is tree planting, and the excellent news is there is space to plant 1.2 trillion additional trees on Earth—enough to offset human emissions. However, manual planting is dauntingly labor-intensive, slow, and disruptive (machine use can interfere with local ecosystems, cause erosion, and accidentally introduce invasive species). Meanwhile, aerial seeding can plant up to 10x faster for one-third of the price, all while using precision planting techniques and biodiverse seed vessels to better achieve sapling success.
Extreme weather patterns have also heightened deforestation due to intensifying floods, hurricanes, and wildfires. Wildfires burn millions of kilometers of land every year—and damage is expected to increase by 50 percent by 2100. Drone technology is an essential and multipurpose tool in this fight. European technologists are using drone LiDAR data to design strategic vegetation management, and an autonomous early warning program is being developed in China. Special sensors can detect hot spots and heat signatures, giving them the ability to locate missing people despite low visibility, identify areas that are likely to spread, and map out hazard-free evacuation routes. The autonomous aerial view also allows firefighters to safely gather information without putting humans in harm’s way, which is significant given that helicopter and plane crashes account for 24 percent of firefighting fatalities.
Beyond the environmental sector, drone technology can elevate the impact of essential humanitarian and global health efforts. Drones can help improve access to water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), classified as a fundamental human right by the United Nations and vital to under-served communities. According to the World Health Organization, 2.1 billion people are without safe drinking water, and 4.5 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation services, resulting in 829 thousand deaths from diarrhea annually. Global water-system leakages are responsible for losing 45 billion liters of water per day, provisions for roughly 200 million people. But opportunity is on the horizon. In tandem with the development of other life-changing innovations, drones can locate leaks and weak spots, identify inefficiencies, improve transfer, and also track disease spread patterns. Drones are not only able to detect unsanitary water sources, but spray disinfectant on the affected areas.
Drones can save critical time and money while helping initiatives calculate the most strategic and precise paths forward. Many of these at-risk communities are also receiving economic benefits in addition to the environmental assistance, as organizations are training locals, transferring skills, and ultimately creating jobs. The “drones for good” movement is not only helping affected areas create efficient and effective solutions, but allowing them to independently continue the projects and take charge of their own community and ecosystem rehabilitation.