Drones Lift Biological Research to New Heights

Over the past five years, drones have been changing the game across several sectors – public safety, construction, delivery and filmmaking. Pundits have even compared the escalation of unmanned aerial vehicles to the Internet eruption of the 1990s.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration – the agency tasked with regulating drones – there were more than 2 million drones in the U.S. as of the end of 2019.

As with the Internet — with its potential to connect the world or to feed toxic trolls – drone tech is a societal Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Dr. Jekyll drones are used to find lost children – Mr. Hyde pilots act like idiots and interfere with firefighters.  

When it comes to science, drones have proven invaluable to researchers across all disciplines, especially in biology. From climate change to koalas to snotty whales (yes, snotty whales), drones are opening new avenues of biological discovery from above.

Climate Change

Denial politics aside, climate change is real; it’s established science; it’s happening. Whether we’re talking melting ice sheets in Greenland or the loss of species,  human-caused climate change is the most perilous threat we face.

How do drones battle climate change dangers? Ask Norhan Magdy Bayomi. The MIT graduate student deploys drones to analyze the impact of new building construction in a low-income neighborhood in Cairo. Thanks to global warming, residents of the area are facing more intense and frequent heatwaves. New construction can, in turn, affect the distribution of warmer temperatures.

Equipped with infrared cameras, Bayomi’s drones can image the surface temperatures of the buildings, providing a deeper data dive into the effect of building design and materials.

In an interview with MIT News, Bayomi said:

“I’m trying to incorporate how the building affects indoor conditions, what resources are available to urban residents, and how they adapt to heat exposure — for instance, if they have a cooling space they could go to, or if there is a problem with the power supplies and they don’t have access to ceiling fans.”

via Pixabay

It’s Snot Unusual to Study Whales with Drones

Whales have to handle a lot of stress – poachers, selfie-seeking tourists and predators. Unlike humans, the aquatic mammals can’t binge-watch The Office to cope. Instead, they produce gallons of mucus full of hormones – literal “stress snot.”

Researchers would love to understand more about whale stress to develop a means to help them. They need to gather “before and after” mucus for comparison.

But, there’s a problem.

To gather samples, scientists must pilot boats close to the whale. The sound of the boat stresses the whales. The whales produce the stress hormones and researchers have no basis for comparison with non-hormone-laden snot.

Engineering students from Olin College looked to the skies for a solution. Working with Ocean Alliance, they developed Snotbot, a rotor drone that quietly flies into a whale’s watery discharge, scooping mucus without stressing the whale.

“Imagine if everything your doctor knew about your health came from chasing you around the room with a large needle while blowing an air-horn. The chart would say something like, ‘elevated stress levels, prone to shrieking,” Iain Keer of Ocean Alliance said. “It’s inaccurate. This is what we believe is going on with some of the current whale data due to the invasive nature of previous sampling methods, and with Snotbot we mean to correct it with a clearer picture of whales that are undisturbed.”

via Pixabay

Robots and Koalas

We all recognize koala bears as the eucalyptus-chewing, cuddly face of Australia. But, like many species, koalas face severe species decline thanks to climate change. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources has named koala bears as “one of the 10 global species most vulnerable to climate change.”

Like whales, koala bears are best observed in a non-intrusive way – a mission perfect for drones. Biologists in Brisbane recognized the challenge of not only finding koalas in the wild, but also of documenting accurate population and distribution data. Writing in Nature, the researchers noted:

“Koala populations are often widely and unevenly distributed and frequently occur on private property, making them difficult and time-consuming to survey accurately by direct observation. They are also cryptic in nature and inhabit environments with complex canopy cover, which significantly lowers the probability of detecting all individuals through direct observation.”

Even an aerial survey using thermal imaging has its limits. A manually piloted drone mission, the team stated, “can be tedious, time-consuming, and is still subject to interpreter bias with a tendency towards low probability of detection and high rates of false negative error.”

To solve the bias issue, the biologists developed a flying robot – an autonomous drone – equipped with deep-learning/AI software and an advanced thermal-imager. The solution shows promise and can even detect individual koalas that display slightly different heat signatures.

The result? The “smart drones” accurately detected more koalas in less time.

To new heights…

The future looks bright for the ongoing love affair between drone tech and biology. Going forward, drones will continue as new models become less expensive, more maneuverable and more novice friendly. In 5-10 years, it’s likely every biology department from high schools to top research institutions will include drones in their basic, scientific toolkit.

Quoted in a 2018 article in The Scientist, Monash University ecologist Rohan Clarke summed up the new heights drones can carry scientific progress:

“It’s almost limitless … drones with the right sensors give you the capacity to do just about anything we do already with traditional techniques … In the past, you couldn’t even pretend you were going to go and collect data at the level of accuracy and precision we can now get.”

For More Information

Jason Reagan is a freelance writer and editor who specializes in drone technology. He is a regular contributor to DroneLife and DroneGenuity.

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