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Drones at the centre of our sustainable future

How drones are helping businesses become more sustainable

Richard Burrett, Chief Sustainability Officer, and Jim Totty, Managing Director of Earth Capital, discusses the increasing impact drone technology is having on the UK.

Drones offer many global industry sectors the opportunity to adopt more sustainable business models. In the UK alone the drone economy could exceed £42bn by 2030, according to research by PwC. There is the enormous potential of drone usage from a sustainability perspective, particularly in the areas of environmental monitoring, agriculture, inspection, and sustainable logistics.

Environmental Monitoring

Drones enable us to reach environmentally critical places that would otherwise be much more difficult to access. One example is that of rainforests where thick or challenging undergrowth makes overland access difficult. In these conditions, drones can assist with aerial mapping of forestry for conservation purposes or identification of illegal logging in protected forestry regions.

The same potential exists in other remote areas both onshore and offshore. This monitoring has previously been done using satellites or even manned aircraft, but drones can get close up footage which facilitates precision mapping. Sensors and thermal imaging equipment can easily be fitted onto drones and then sent into a variety of landscapes including forests, ocean waters or even glaciers.

Drones can be deployed to collect data such as weather and soil moisture, enabling more effective land management. They can give landowners a richer picture of their forests and fields and assist in optimising planting as well as monitoring future crop growth and health. According to the FAO, this may be critical in a world which needs to increase food production by almost 50% by 2050 to feed a population of nine billion when resources such as land and water are becoming more scarce. Where such regular monitoring is required, a drone’s relative ease of deployment is a benefit and can facilitate a regular sustainability assessment of how a landscape is changing. Drones make this kind of survey much more feasible than existing technology.

Agriculture

Drones offer innovative ways of managing resources and water, and offer exciting opportunities to address key challenges in agriculture. Flying drones are being used for sustainable management of arable crops, where they can take detailed photos and identify the optimal use of irrigation and fertiliser.

In the UK, smart irrigation for arable crops is increasingly in demand, requiring new sources of data and diagnostic tools. To reduce water wastage, irrigation technologies require vital data from drones to diagnose when and how a crop needs irrigating and how much water to use. Drones can identify areas of land which are most impacted by summer droughts, helping farmers use precision irrigation to conserve precious water resources.

Current agricultural techniques include blanket spraying of herbicide and pesticide. However, we are seeing increasing numbers of start-up technologies deploying ground-based drones, which can be used for sustainable micro-weeding of high-value row crops. Drones are able to move up rows, use image recognition technology to recognise weeds, and apply targeted treatment to weeds directly, minimising the use of harmful chemicals.

Drones are also being developed for livestock farming, and are expected to have widespread use in this market in 10 to 20 years’ time. In Australia, herding with helicopters is already commonplace, and drones can expand this market globally, both cheaply and sustainably. Going forward, drones will also be used for individual animal management. Autonomous diagnostic systems under development could help farmers pick up early signs of raised temperatures or illnesses in the herd.

Inspection

There are clear sustainability and cost benefits in using drones over other aerial options for inspection. In many circumstances, drones are more efficient than overland vehicles in covering difficult terrains such as forests, mountains or industrial sites. Drones can fly over targeted areas at speed and relay information back for immediate analysis and remote processing. There are potential health and safety benefits too in using unmanned drones rather than people in challenging areas and climates. This can also apply to the inspection of infrastructure projects or equipment such as onshore and offshore wind turbines, reducing the need for potentially dangerous human inspection. One Scottish firm Cyberhawk inspected its first turbine by drone as long ago as 2010. It has subsequently inspected thousands across Europe. In March this year, it was acquired by private equity investors.

Sustainable Logistics

Distribution businesses and services are also exploring the potential use of delivery drones to enhance sustainability. Drones can be more cost and energy-efficient than other solutions in both ‘last mile’ and long distance deliveries. Analysts have also determined that, in some cases, delivery drones could be more efficient than even a standard fleet of delivery trucks. This has both potential cost and resource saving. The increasing development and adoption of drone technology is also bringing down prices enhancing their cost-effectiveness further.

However, not all drone applications have met with universal support. A Rio Tinto plan in Australia to allow a sub-contractor Sodexo to monitor employees on a remote mining site raised issues about employee consent. Privacy laws will be tested in their usage too.

Drones offer many commercial solutions as we transition to a more sustainable world. Key global sectors such as Industrials, agriculture and logistics will be transformed through their technology and services. Drones will be at the heart of sustainability in the coming decades.

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