Drone technology, directly and indirectly, combatting climate change

Every crisis, including the climate crisis, presents opportunities. Under the Paris Agreement, the UK has a legal obligation to become carbon neutral by 2050.  This means that, with the funding and support packages now available, the opportunities for organisations to innovate with technology to solve problems and accelerate solutions has never been more real or immediate.  

We don’t need to imagine the consequences of inaction against climate change – the science clearly shows us these, but all the challenges we will face along the way aren’t yet clear and many solutions have yet to be imagined or invented. However, we can already see that technology is providing tools to speed our path towards those solutions, and drones have an exciting role to play in this.  They give us visibility and access to data that would otherwise be difficult, if not impossible to collate; enabling us to see and operate beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), helping mitigate human and business risks, and providing considerable economic efficiencies. 

With advances in technology making drones increasingly agile and flexible, cheaper and easier to operate, the extent of their many potential uses has yet to be established. Still, they are already being deployed in unexpected and creative ways, that will either directly or indirectly positively impact climate change and our ability to sustain life and continue with strong economic growth that doesn’t negatively impact the planet. 

Monitoring and tracking climate change 

At the end of last month around 30,000 people, including leaders and dignitaries from around the world, descended on Glasgow for COP26, where the rules of the Paris Agreement will be finalised. This includes the framework for accelerating technological innovation for improving resilience to climate change and reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.   

Deforestation was high on the agenda at COP26; it is responsible for more than 15% of net global GHG emissions – equal to the world’s entire transportation sector, so protecting forests is vital in the effort to reduce emissions.   

The good news is that drone technology is already being used in innovative ways around the world to directly combat climate change, by providing cheaper and more effective ways to document, monitor, prevent and tackle it.  

A few examples of this in action include drones that can attach sensors to trees to monitor environmental and ecological changes in forests; drones that monitor tree degradation and the impact of illegal logging in Costa Rica; and a start-up from Oxford is using drones to plant as many as 100,000 trees a day at abandoned mines in Australia, while also working with an NGO to replant mangroves in Myanmar. 

Transportation and emissions 

In 2019, transport was responsible for 27% of the UK’s total emissions; cars and taxis account for 61% of this, followed by heavy goods vehicles at 18% and vans at 17%. Department for Transport (DfT) data highlights the scale of the challenge associated with achieving the net zero target by 2050 and it is no surprise that electric vehicles are a priority agenda point for COP26.   

But drones could also have a significant positive impact on emissions from road transport and, in particular, there have been strong recent developments in the package delivery industry, fuelled partly by the pandemic and the need to move medical supplies and other goods safely and efficiently.  

Improvements in battery energy storage and reductions in battery costs have resulted in drones that can fly much longer distances, while advances in automation and computer vision have made it possible to develop drones that can deliver packages to individual homes.  So, it is only a matter of time before we have the regulations and technology in place to enable drone technology to replace a proportion of delivery traffic and associated emissions, alongside creating many more opportunities for organisations to boost productivity and grow efficiently on top of delivering the positive environmental outcomes that their customers expect and demand. 

Industry efficiency, safety and sustainability 

Not only can drone technology help us to combat climate change head-on, but it can also provide sustainable solutions to multiple business challenges. Drones can fly quickly and safely to places that are difficult, hazardous or expensive to reach, and their advanced cameras can take pictures and live stream videos which can be analysed by workers on the ground; offering many time, resource and cost savings and efficiencies, as well as health and safety benefits.  

To date, most industry applications for drones are outdoors in agriculture, construction, infrastructure, energy, logistics and mining, where drone-enabled rapid action helps to avoid projects being delayed or overrunning with significant cost savings.  Importantly, real-time, accurate data of what is happening on the ground is then available in the cloud, ready to be analysed using artificial intelligence or visualisation software anywhere in the world. 

However, drone applications in indoor industrial settings, such as manufacturing plants are still relatively limited.  This is despite indoor drone use being neither subject to the regulations for outdoor flight or adverse weather conditions.  So, the opportunities for the manufacturing industry to benefit from drone technology are very real. I predict that this will be the next big growth sector, as companies take advantage of the financial and support incentives on offer and move away from conventional fixed installation technologies to embed drones in their digital transformation strategies; enabling them to manage costs, control risks, increase safety and boost productivity with drone technology.   

The Drones Pathfinder Catalyst programme provides these companies, and all other organisations interested in harnessing drone technology, with the opportunity to: tap into the knowledge and understanding of others; form collaborations, and gain financial support to enable them to be part of this exhilarating movement that will not only help grow their businesses but will help us to solve the massive future challenges of climate change that are currently beyond our visible line of sight and experience.  

The Drones Pathfinder Catalyst programme is culminating in a final showcase on 14th March 2022, which will present how public and private sector organisations can embrace drone solutions to boost productivity and accelerate growth. Register your place below.