Imagination is more important than knowledge. — Albert Einstein
The era of “citizen spies” is upon us! “CSI: Miami,” take note. Many conservation biologists, geologists, public health specialists and nonprofits are building up a new army, called UAVs (Unmanned aerial vehicles) or “drones,” which are low-cost surveillance technologies that can fly over sites and capture visual data.
Once reserved for the high-end budgets of the military, drones have now decreased in price so that even a curious citizen can buy one to capture photographs of her local neighborhood. In February 2012, young biologists Lin Pin Koh and Serge Wich developed the first low-cost prototype UAV for less than $2,000. They flew it as part of their conservation research in North Sumatra, and easily captured thousands of images that would have been extremely expensive (even impossible) to collect through conventional techniques of renting a small plane and pilot, or reconfiguring satellite data.
After posting some of their images online, they were deluged with emails from colleagues and the press about this extraordinary new tool for conservation. Hence, they co-founded a nonprofit called ConservationDrones.com to share their applications with an eager public.
More recently, the role of drones has been creatively expanded to solve many environmental challenges, including the complexities between environment and the spread of infectious diseases. For example, drones were used to plan relief measures after Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines. Medical supplies were delivered to remote areas via drone transport, and biological samples were flown from rural clinics to larger cities to track diseases; this was a critical breakthrough in a region where the roads were impassable, yet medical assistance was urgently needed. In addition, several tropical infectious disease research teams believe that drones can track changes in land use, which drives the emergence and spread of many infectious diseases. For example, deforestation is thought to increase human contact with parasites that cause malaria, and medical teams used drones to monitor this throughout remote regions of Malaysia and the Philippines.
Closer to home, “citizen spies” are documenting illegal fracking activities in Pennsylvania. Using drones, vigilant locals mapped wastewater ponds that were not recorded by the drilling permits, but represented important potential sites of the distribution of toxic water. A nonprofit called SkyTruth attracted over 200 volunteers who crowd-sourced 90,000 image analysis tasks from the drone aerial surveys, and located 1,400 active drilling sites in Pennsylvania alone. Not bad for a bunch of dedicated citizens!
Whereas geospatial data used to be the privileged information of technical specialists with big budgets, SkyTruth and other groups are now downloading it for free. Even Google donates access to Map Engine and Earth Engine services through its “Geo for Good” programs. Affordable drones and other open source visuals have made it possible to map crude oil oozing on the surface waters in the Gulf of Mexico, to monitor illegal logging in tropical forests, and to locate water bodies where infectious malaria mosquitoes will breed. SkyTruth has expanded from its original mission in Pennsylvania to documenting illegal fishing around Easter Island and mapping oil flares in Nigeria — all possible thanks to the emergence of UAVs and innovative crowd-sourcing of the downloadable visuals.
The toolkit for environmental monitoring is growing, thanks to innovative and creative applications of new technologies. Drones are the newest addition to the existing satellite imagery, and even discarded smartphones affixed to tropical trees that monitor the noise of illegal chain saws! Creativity abounds, as science and technology come together for innovative solutions.
Stay tuned, as drones provide increasing opportunities for all of us to become citizen scientists who can harness the power of UAVs for conservation and environmental monitoring of our own neighborhoods. (But beware and behave — a drone can also record who is skinny-dipping in your neighbor’s pool!)
Meg Lowman, a longtime Sarasota-based scientist and educator, is chief of science and sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences.
Originally posted in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.