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Drones for Good: Tracking Climate Change with UAVs

By Maria Andersen on September 26, 2014


Sadly, developing countries are some of the largest emitters of global pollution. Yet for the poor, the emission of pollutants, and their detrimental effects on the environment, is not usually an overriding concern. The cost of caring about saving the environment is a luxury when individuals are busy worrying about how to save themselves and their families from poverty.

Fortunately Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (aka drones) present a cost-effective opportunity for caring for the environment. At a recent IREXtech Deep Dive, leading development practitioners discussed how drone technology could give developing countries a practical way to tackle environmental challenges.

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The Many Uses of UAVs

For some time now, we have heard of how drones can help us understand the land and the creatures living residing on it. Drones are providing valuable insight for geographers by allowing them to economically geo-map areas and help resolve land disputes. Drones can also map livestock and crop production vital for the food chain.

But the usefulness of drones doesn’t stop here – there are many more ways that UAVs can help us understand the environment. Water and airborne diseases often stem from environmental changes and in order to improve public health in developing countries, we can use drones to better understand the current and future states of land and water.

Drones can take water samples from a river or lake, and assess the water level and quality – the height, consistency and composition of the water and any organism living in it. Launch a UAV into the sky, and it can collect information on the atmosphere’s composition and climate patterns, including pollution levels, using vector-monitoring technology. Drones can also act as a weatherman. By recording weather patterns, the drone can be a resourceful tool for tracking unusual climate changes.

An added plus: compared to other some other technologies, UAVs are also environment friendly. A drone can navigate through the sky or the sea without harming its surroundings, and battery-powered drones are not pollution emitting.

Issues and Concerns

Benefits aside, using drones in developing countries for environmental reasons is not without challenges. To start, any successful model needs to be demand-driven, and if the poor aren’t convinced that they need drones (and that they should be prioritizing the care of their surroundings), then efforts are arguably unsustainable.

Moreover, the collection of the drone information is only useful if there’s an expert to dissect its use for the poor. The drone itself may be cheap, but the manpower and brains behind the drone come at a higher price.

And like with any drone, the stigma associated with this technology is, unfortunately, far from positive. It’s a hurdle to convince governments to let drones into a country; it’s an additional challenge to persuade the poor that they need drones, as well as the environmentalists that this is a tool they should be capitalizing on.

And Priorities

And maybe, a devil’s advocate would argue, they shouldn’t be convinced to prioritize environmental protection. With constrained costs and opportunities, surely, the focus should be where the poor are already putting it: basic means of survival, jobs and self-sufficiency. What’s more, shouldn’t governments meet basic criteria first (such as acting democratically and caring for their citizens) before we can ask it to care about climate change?

The Earth is big place and, in comparison, current drone technology remains small. Scaling up drone technology, in order to give us a broader, holistic picture of the inter-workings of the Earth’s atmosphere, remains a challenge.

Fortunately, when it comes to technological progress, the sky is the limit.

Maria Andersen is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), focusing on international economics & African development

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Maria Andersen is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), focusing on international economics & African development and tweets at @maria_andersen
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