It’s tough to do anything without being able to see what you’re doing. Or, as a number of experts on productivity say, “You can’t improve what you can’t measure.” This is easy to do with things that you can count, like dollars, hours of productivity, or the number of widgets you’re making and selling. But something like the health of a rainforest isn’t something you can punch into a calculator or spreadsheet to keep track of. So, how can you measure and keep track of efforts to save one, and know if you’re helping?
That’s the challenge Wilderness International was running into. They’re a non-profit that saves up money and buys wilderness land, and then preserves it. We know that governments do the same thing with wilderness areas, but they seek to go above and beyond, and protect even more areas for wildlife and plant life to thrive. After all, forests and rainforests are only “the lungs of the planet,” right?
Licensed sUAS (drone) pilots from Drones for Earth are working for the organization and found an innovative way to step up and help out, and they’re doing it all with zero emissions and minimal disturbance to these privately protected wilderness areas!
Even cheaper camera drones that some people use as toys have a variety of amazing sensors that we take for granted these days. GPS technology tells the operator exactly where the drone is. Cameras take high-resolution imagery. Magnetometers (electronic compasses) tell them what direction the drone is facing. All of that data can be put together in software to put together high-resolution 3D maps of an area, even with cheap drones that can fit in a pocket.
Professional drones bring even more options to bear. You can get higher resolution cameras that work in a wider variety of lighting conditions (and capture the shadows better). You can also add infrared or near-infrared cameras to measure the health of plants better than a whole team of plant experts could in a week of analysis, just by looking at how much moisture the leaves are holding.
To get this done fast, the remote pilots are using fixed-wing drones, or ones that look and fly like an airplane, instead of using quadcopters. This gives much greater range per battery and allows the drone to cover a lot more ground to more quickly cover the area under study. 42-megapixel images are taken over and over as the drone flies, with GPS and compass data stored inside the image metadata. This is all fed into photogrammetry software to overlap the images (for even greater resolution) and produce a 3D map with details down to the centimeter level.
They also pair the imagery with LiDAR sensors and that data to produce a more accurate 3D map, so the elevations and size of different vegetation and land features are also centimeter accurate.
By going back regularly, Wilderness International can now keep detailed records of how the land looks, how healthy the plants are, and where exactly everything is. If so much as a stone is turned over on their protected wilderness, they’ll know about it. This enables the organization to better protect the land, know if it’s being trespassed upon, and make sure that ecosystems are protected from a variety of threats. They can also see what wildlife is in the area, and even look at their tracks and how they change over time.
Drones for Earth also volunteers for many other non-profits and government agencies, providing this amazing level of data for a variety of other environmental efforts. So, drones aren’t only proving to be cleaner than manned aircraft, but they’re also proving to be great tools for defending nature. It’s hard to find a better piece of clean technology than this.
Featured image: a screenshot from the Drones for Earth website.
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