Earlier this week, a story circulated about a drone hobbyist whose photos of a Dallas-area meat-packing plant dumping blood into a river got the feds to investigate the plant. Environmentalism seems to be a perfect use for the new breed of cheap drones, something activists are just now starting to figure out. Last month, Sea Shepherd activists used a drone to track and photograph a Japanese whaling fleet. But compared to their counterparts' organizing protests and reporting news, environmental campaigners have been relatively slow to adopt drone technology. They shouldn't be.
With things like the Drone Journalism Lab and the occucopter, simply and easily seeing and filming activities on the ground from above, out of reach of the police or other grounded obstructions, is easier than ever. For environmentalists, these drones can do double duty as environmental monitors as well as camera platforms.
The story from Dallas is a great example of why drones are so efficient at spotting environmental problems: Using a $75 airframe fitted with a point-and-shoot camera, the drone operator shot pictures of discoloration in the water, which he could show to regulators. From what he wrote to the drone news site sUAS News, he wasn't necessarily even looking for evidence of pollution, but when he saw it, he had instant evidence. Had he been drone-free, he'd have had to somehow get a water sample or some other proof, which would require getting to the edge of the river close enough to the plant. Environmentalists tend to get busted for trespassing when they try to collect evidence from suspicious sites, so being able to snap photos from a distance gives them a huge advantage.
The Sea Shepherd drone illustrated how a relatively cheap aircraft could be used to survey a huge area in order to find whalers. The Sea Shepherd, for those who've never seen Whale Wars, tries to harass and get in the way of Japanese "factory ships" that still do an annual whale hunt. Their whole direct-action campaign is a big cat-and-mouse game, and they're often stymied because the whalers follow them around and give away their position. But this past season they used a donated, $16,000 drone known as the Osprey, which has a 190-mile range and streams high-definition video. This particular model's expensive, though nowhere near the $25 million Israeli Heron drones Brazil bought in November to monitor illegal logging. With the ability to see over hundreds of square miles, environmentalists can use drones to take in more of their environment than they ever could from the ground, for a lot less money than a manned aircraft.
Looking forward, it's easy to imagine climate activists using drones to monitor air quality. NASA already does so on a pretty sophisticated level, using military surplus Global Hawks to model climate patterns. And the EPA uses drones to take air quality measures. The same way sophisticated camera-carrying drones have migrated from the military to the civilian world over the last couple years, so will climate-measuring aircraft. In fact, it already has. Mundus Air Drone already makes a vertical takeoff drone that it can fit with air-quality sensors. Last year, farmers in Oregon started experimenting with sensor-packed drones for monitoring farms.
Given the ease with drones can be put to work on environmental projects, and the constantly improving technology, it's clear our two recent examples of drone environmental activism are among the first in what will soon be a crowded field.