Drones play an integral role in sustainability. They empower organizations with the means to make more informed decisions and, in some cases are the tools used to enact change. To put it another way, drones present industries with an opportunity to move to more environmentally friendly business models. This article explores how drones are helping organizations achieve Carbon Neutral status through Counting and analyzing, reducing, and offsetting.
As a concept, sustainability involves meeting current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs while developing products, goods, and services. The idea of sustainability takes into account the fact that natural resources are finite. Therefore, the environment and its resources should be used sensibly, and they should be protected for the sake of the Earth, humanity, and all living things. As it stands now, we already face the devastating effects of unsustainable development and resource consumption like disastrous wildfires, an unprecedented rise in global temperatures, our coastlines shrinking, and more.
The effects of unsustainability may be overwhelming, but it should not come as a surprise to anyone; after all, since the industrial revolution, humans have emitted or released about 375 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. However, the good news is that this is not irreversible. Going carbon neutral is the first step of the way. The next goal would be carbon negative which is taking away or offsetting more than what is released. Keep the status of carbon-negative long enough, and you ultimately reverse and repair the damage done to the environment. This is precisely what Microsoft hopes to do- earlier in the year, they announced that they would be carbon negative by 2030, and by 2050 they would have offset all CO2 released by them since the start of the organization in 1975.
What is important is taking committed steps towards the goal of carbon-neutral and then carbon negative. How you start is by quantifying and understanding the impact of current practices on the environment.
Environmental monitoring and impact assessment are integral tools that help you enact sustainable development, ecosystem conservation, and pursue environmental protection. Gaining access to data and statistics goes a long way in the path towards a sustainable future. It gives you an idea of where you stand and how you can begin to make a difference. But, gathering this data was previously a substantial undertaking. Collecting samples by foot is a slow and arduous process that is further complicated by challenging environments like rainforests or on-shore/off-shore remote fields. In some cases, you would elect to use crewed planes to access remote locations or survey large parcels of land. However, unless the fuel is sustainably sourced, this too is adding to the problem.
Drones remove the physically demanding aspect of this task while returning better data. Drones make it possible for us to get to otherwise inaccessible and environmentally sensitive areas. For example, overland travel is problematic in rainforests, where the undergrowth is dense or difficult to navigate. Aerial mapping of forested areas for conservation or detection of illegal logging can be made easier with drones in these conditions. Other off-shore and on-shore remote areas hold the same potential. In the past, satellites or even crewed aircraft have been used to monitor this, but drones can capture close-up footage, allowing for more precise mapping.
Drones can be equipped with some of the most accurate sensors available; this gives drones an edge since the captured data is richer and gives rise to actionable intel. You also get the added benefit of being able to collect multifaceted data- simply swap the appropriate thermal, multispectral, or even UV payload to collect data without splurging on highly specialized equipment. Drone data provides you with a more effective sustainability management system, and drones make this kind of survey much more feasible than existing technology and thus enable you with more frequent monitoring.
Once you have the data, you then use it to enact changes in favor of sustainable practices. It takes resources to manufacture, transport, and dispose of products. In some industries, upkeep in terms of maintenance or inspection itself could significantly contribute to unsustainable practices- because all these actions cost resources. Reduction aims to minimize the use of new resources. Reducing is one of the major pillars of sustainability. It forces you to reassess your current practices and devise new methods or alter how you perform tasks in favor of sustainability. Agriculture happens to be among the most significant contributors to global emissions levels, and this is in a tough spot- with the worldwide increase in population, the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) states that food production must be increased by 50% by 2050 to feed a population of 9 billion. The question is, how do we increase production by 50% sustainably in an already overburdened industry.
Unsustainable agriculture is caused by the overuse of land, pesticides, and fertilisers. While they ensure short-term returns, in the long run, they leech away at the soil's natural nutrients and make future growth require that much more resources. One of the solutions is practicing Precision Agriculture, where accurate data is used to determine the exact needs of the fields and then dispense only prescribed resources. However, gathering the required data and acting on it was challenging. First, when dealing with crops, normal RBG is not sufficient. Instead, you need multispectral sensors which can shed light on the health and vitality of the crops. This roots out satellite, and it would be wasteful to undertake using crewed planes. Traditionally, these surveys were restricted to vehicle-mounted sensors or handheld- this severely decreased the efficiency of surveying and exposed humans to environmental hazards and potentially harmful chemicals. Second, to act on this, you need a precise delivery system. While GPS-driven tractors and other farm equipment are not new, the combination of navigation plus precise delivery methods would quickly increase costs.
Drones address the two main challenges effortlessly. Firstly, drones are swift and efficient at gathering geo-referenced multispectral data. For example, you could cover a large farm of 4-5 sqkm in size in just one flight (90mins) of a fixed-wing drone. So you turn a day's worth of surveying into just a few short hours. Once you have this data, you can then use spraying drones equipped with special release systems that can dispense seeds, pesticides, and even fertilisers. Using the information you gain from remote sensing drones, you can use the spraying drone to distribute the exact amount of fertilizer or pesticide necessary. Instead of blanket spraying an entire farm, you can now very conservatively use resources, which significantly adds to resource efficiency while ensuring that the land is not overused.
On a macro scale, drones can conduct large-scale surveys to identify the natural resources available. For example, when the UAE's Ministry of Climate Change and Environment (MoCCaE) wanted to use detailed agricultural data to better direct farmers' efforts, increase resource efficiency and preserve the already scarce natural resources, they used drones to collect data. FEDS- Drone Powered solutions mapped the entire 1,100 sqkm area in 64 working days to provide detailed agricultural reports. The use of drones in agriculture has provided agronomists with a practical approach to sustainable agriculture practices.
As we work towards Carbon Neutral, one of our tools is to take away pollutants that have been released into the atmosphere or to balance it out by creating provisions for sustainable practices like planting trees, setting up renewable energy production, etc. Offsetting may become the most crucial aspect when we transition from carbon neutral to carbon negative. Drones help offset emissions through three methods: reforestation or planting trees, sustainable logistics, and detecting methane in landfills.
Landfills are no longer just containment sites; the more advanced landfills also function as energy production plants. As the moisture and air mixes with the refuse, gases escape from the landfill- Traditionally, these gases would pollute the atmosphere. Almost 50% of the gas released at landfills is methane gas, and unfortunately, methane is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to trapping heat. By capturing and then processing the methane from landfills, you prevent the gas from contributing to global warming and create a clean source for energy. However, monitoring landfills to find pockets of escaping methane gas is where the challenge lies. Traditionally, surveyors with handheld equipment walk around the landfill to take readings. This is a hazardous, slow, and inefficient process. One of the innovative applications of drones is equipping them with a Tunable Diode Laser that can detect escaping methane gas. Once identified, the landfill can then capture and process the methane gas to generate clean energy.
Delivery drones are being investigated by distribution companies and service providers as a way to improve sustainability. The use of drones in the 'last mile' and long-distance delivery can save money and resources. In some cases, delivery drones may even outperform a traditional fleet of delivery trucks. This could save money and resources at the same time. As drone technology advances and is adopted more widely, prices will come down, making them even more cost-effective. By far, the most significant benefit of using drones to make deliveries is eliminating CO2 emissions. You don't have a van or a truck burning fossil fuels as it makes its way around the city.
Reforestation is a key tenant of sustainability, trees don't just produce oxygen by consuming carbon dioxide, but they also act as carbon sinks and hold in CO2 as they grow. One of the adverse side effects of global warming is desertification. Due to human activities- namely global warming and pollution fertile areas become increasingly arid and eventually deserts. For example, the Sahara desert is growing larger by the year and is now 10% larger than nearly a century ago. The solution proposed an 8,000 km long barrier of trees grown with the intent to hold the desert back. But how do you seed a corridor 8,000 km long?
Drones can be equipped with specialized payloads to disperse seeds efficiently. In the UAE FEDS- Drone Powered Solutions distributed around 6 million Ghaf and Acacia seeds across 25 areas. The benefit of using drones is not just speed or efficiency but adjusting the spread rate according to the tree's temperaments. For example, some plants require more room to themselves or end up competing for resources, which ultimately reduces growth rate; drones can be programmed to disperse speeds at a set rate, ensuring a uniform and appropriate spread across the area.
As we move towards a more sustainable future, advancements in technology become our greatest ally in the fight against climate change. From understanding our current impact to finding new and intuitive ways to combat unsustainable practices, drones can help us achieve carbon neutrality. At FEDS, one of our core values is sustainability. We're constantly looking to find ways to optimize our operations, reduce emissions and give back to the environment. Drones are bound to be at the centre of sustainability, empowering industries to make better choices, and we aim to be leading that movement.
This Article originally featured in HFW's Aero Magazine- November Edition