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

Melanie Colón

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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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