Comment on drones in Science

Dr Zbynek Malenovsky (member of the TerraLuma group) commented on the article “Drones Flying High as New Tool for Field Biologists” in Science Magazine. See:

by Dr Zbynek Malenovsky:
In this News & Analysis story, R. Schiffman presents an employment of drones in tracking and protecting wildlife in Africa. The article gives the impression that biologists use drones as spying agents, provoking parallels with military use of this technology. Recently developed scientific drones have, nonetheless, much greater potential.

Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), outfitted with specialized multi-sensor payloads, are revolutionizing ecological monitoring of remote and inaccessible locations including Antarctica. Along the East Antarctic coast, mosses as the only green plants can serve as bio-indicators of both climate change and human disturbance (1). However, the small size of the moss patches and their fragmented distribution in a rocky landscape requires a multi-sensor ultrahigh resolution mapping approach to study their distribution and stress reactions. Over the last three summers, scientists from the Universities of Tasmania and Wollongong have deployed several remote-controlled UAS in Eastern Antarctica, equipped with digital cameras, a thermal camera, and multi- and hyperspectral imaging spectrometers (2). The synergistic use of multiple sensors has resulted in detailed maps of local snowmelt, which provides fragile moss communities with vital fresh water, and the first maps of actual Antarctic moss health at unprecedented high spatial resolution of less than 10 cm (3).

Earth-observing satellites together with high-altitude drones, swarms of low-flying micro-UAS, and ground-based sensor networks offer a unique opportunity to form a comprehensive multimodal integration, capable of acquiring bio-geographical information of large areas at various scales. Therefore, the future of Biology’s drones does not simply lie in target tracking applications, but rather in hierarchical multisensory monitoring systems that will provide scientists with a broad spectrum of resources to disentangle the complexity of Earth’s ecosystems.

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