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Eye on the Environment— Conservation Drone Summit, September 17-19, 2015; San francisco, CA

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#1 Melanie Colón

Melanie Colón
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  • Texas A&M University, College Station, TX,
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Posted 17 April 2015 - 08:06 AM


post from ecolog

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or ‘drones’ as they are commonly referred to are no longer
highly classified, weaponized aircrafts reserved for the national defense industry. Instead,
new forms of UAVs are being produced that are quickly being adopted across the ecologists
for research and education. These UAVs are light (often less than 2 kg), compact, increasingly
affordable, and run on lithium polymer batteries instead of fuel. They come in the form of
copters (‘quad’, ‘hex’, or ‘octo’ depending on the number of motors) or small planes (often
called ‘fixed wings) that can be rapidly deployed by any user, from a first year undergraduate
to a senior member of the National Academy of Sciences.

UAVs are revolutionizing the type of data collected, as well as the speed at which it is
obtained and the scale at which ecological monitoring can be carried out. Ecologists are
flying drones for such tasks as high-resolution mapping to estimate the spread of invasive
species, wildlife surveillance for anti-poaching efforts, measuring atmospheric pollutants,
measuring shifts in phenology, and much more. The different uses for these new drones are
limited only by the creativity of the students, postdocs, and professors. Taken together, UAVs
have the potential to alleviate much of the burden placed on boots-on-the-ground
researchers as they seek to address both basic scientific and applied questions.

Until today, if a researcher wanted to tackle a new avenue of inquiry, it would typically require
a complete retooling of a laboratory and either the purchase or engineering of a new drone.
This could be very costly in an age of shrinking university budgets and vanishing grant
dollars. With the launch of a novel Aerial Information Platform by a San Francisco-based
start-up called Airware (www.airware.com), this is about change. Not only does this platform
act to pilot many types of vehicles autonomously, it also has the capability to attach different
payload configurations. Moreover, Airware provides cloud-based services that will allow
ecologists to download software Apps or even develop their own to tailor to highly specific
research goals (e.g. the ‘Aerial Phenology App’). This new platform will radically increase the
flexibility of UAVs, while still meeting the precision and accuracy required by academic
investigators. As new questions arise, a lab group can simply download a new App, swap out
a particular sensor, or even switch quadcopter for a plane.

Airware CEO Jonathan Downey has assembled a highly skilled team from many of the top
research and government institutions in North America. In addition to the new hardware, they
have developed stringent safety protocols, pre-flight checks, post flight logs, and incident
reporting that go above and beyond anything else on the market. This should go far in
alleviating the safety and liability concerns of our research institutions as the use of UAVs
expands in new and exciting directions.

In sum, the new Airware platform will be a game changer for the ecological research


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