Drones: Not Just for Military or Surveillance Purposes Anymore

Credit: UNEP GEAS, May 2013
Credit: UNEP GEAS, May 2013

Also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (AEVs) or remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), use of drones for military and surveillance purposes has been both lauded and lambasted even as the market has gone global and grown exponentially. Though significant obstacles – technological and sociopolitical – remain, developers and end users have only just scratched the surface when it comes to realizing the full range of potential applications.

So-called “eco-drones” are affording a growing number and variety of government, public and private sector groups and organizations a “low-cost and low-impact solution” capable of providing higher resolution images and greater quantities of granular, primary data that should help resolve some of today’s most pressing socioeconomic and environmental issues.

A report in the May 2013 issue of the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Global Environmental Alert Service (GEAS) highlights the pioneering use and application of drones in climate change monitoring and research, ecosystems management and environmental governance.

Drones for social-environmental, ecosystems research and management

The authors of UNEP-GEAS’s, A new eye in the sky: Eco-drones, highlights the advantages and benefits, as well as challenges and hurdles, regarding the use of eco-drones. “Quick, easy deployment and ability to enter hazardous areas make drones a beneficial tool for collecting real-time data about atmospheric conditions, mapping disaster impacts as they occur and their aftermath,” they write.

“This information can be incorporated into current and future early warning systems. Drones can provide information to emergency planners by monitoring evacuation, identifying where environmental conditions are worsening (i.e. flood spreading) and contribute to rescue efforts serving as an emergency response mechanism.”

According to the report authors, eco-drones are well suited and capable of providing real-time monitoring for disaster events and illegal resource extraction, such as illegal logging, wildlife poaching and mining, as well as to distribute broadcast messages and collect and transmit meteorological data, which can be vital to improving monitoring and understanding of changing weather patterns, climate change, carbon and greenhouse gas emissions, and other agents of environmental change.


Eco-drones’ capabilities extend to being able to “fly in riskier and more treacherous areas than humans or manned aircraft can traverse, such as inaccessible shorelines or hurricanes. Due to the size and aerodynamics of drones, they are able to fly at lower altitudes, collecting more precise information than manned aircraft or satellites.”


Filling the knowledge gap

Furthermore, they continue, eco-drones can provide data and images that satellite imagery, remote sensing and ground monitoring cannot.

For several types of situations, satellite imagery and remote sensing analysis are the only way to see what has occurred on the ground, but sometimes the information collected may not be adequate enough. If the image resolution is not high enough to see exact areas of devastation or change, coverage of an entire affected area is not available, or imagery is simply too expensive to acquire, then an analysis will be difficult to complete.

The generally low-cost high resolution image capture capability of eco-drones creates the potential for them to fill the data gap between satellites and ground surveying in the aforementioned cases. In addition, eco-drones can do much more than image acquisition, occasionally making them advantageous over typical satellite or aircraft image acquisition.


Use of drones has been growing rapidly, a trend that is expected to continue. The number of countries in which drones are being used for military, commercial or civil use grew from 41 to 76 between 2004 and 2011, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.

As the report authors go on to highlight, growing use of eco-drones is practically assured. “With changing ecosystems and disaster dynamics caused by climate change and urbanization, as well as the elusive presence of environmental crime, on-demand aerial data collection and real-time environmental monitoring will become increasingly important.”

An independent journalist, researcher and writer, my work roams across the nexus where ecology, technology, political economy and sociology intersect and overlap. The lifelong quest for knowledge of the world and self -- not to mention gainful employment -- has led me near and far afield, from Europe, across the Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Africa and back home to the Americas. LinkedIn: andrew burger Google+: Andrew B Email: huginn.muggin@gmail.com

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