University of Calgary

Drones take off for environmental research


When people think of drones, they typically think of military robot aircrafts. Increasingly, however, drone technology is becoming more affordable and mainstream, making it ideal for a broad range of research and applied applications.

For natural sciences, observation of Earth is essential to measuring and monitoring changes on the Earth’s surface and in the atmosphere. Conventional platforms for acquiring these data, such as piloted aircraft and satellites, are expensive, and the resolution of the data doesn’t match the scale needed to solve environmental challenges. Drones however, have the potential to change all this.

Also known as unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) or uninhabited aerial vehicles (UAVs), drones allows the user to match the scale of the data to the scale of the process being observed.

“Over the next several years, we anticipate a surge in the application of unmanned aircraft systems for a broad suite of Earth and environmental issues,” says assistant professor and Cenovus research chair Chris Hugenholtz of the Faculty of Environmental Design (EVDS).

Researchers in EVDS and geography, along with researchers at the University of Lethbridge, recently published a paper titled Small unmanned aircraft systems for remote sensing and Earth science research.

Written by Chris H. Hugenholtz, Brian J. Moorman, Kevin Riddell and Ken Whitehead, the paper appears in the American Geophysical Union’s peer-reviewed newspaper, EOS. It outlines the opportunities and upcoming changes in U.S. regulations that could make drones more accessible for measuring and monitoring Earth and environmental processes.

“As an Earth scientist, I have often craved a bird’s-eye view of my research site to supplement or enhance measurements made on the ground,” says Hugenholtz. “Drones can make that possible and can transform many facets of Earth and environmental research.”

The paper suggests drones offer opportunities for more pragmatic issues, but cautions about the importance of certification and regulations.

“In Canada, we have major environmental challenges that require cost-effective Earth observation data at the right spatial and temporal scales. For some environmental issues, these data could come from drones,” says Hugenholtz. “Researchers who want to develop and use their own drones need to realize that there are strict regulations in place in Canada. It is essential they follow proper process for acquiring certification before operating drones for research.”

Article and images by Chris Hugenholtz.