20 Aug Four steps to extend drone use in research
Drones are revolutionizing environmental research. Using small remote-controlled aerial vehicles, scientists can photograph far-flung places more quickly, easily and cheaply than by conventional surveys done on foot, by car or from balloons, satellites or aircraft.
Drones are becoming essential for monitoring forests1, rivers2, farms3 and wildlife4. They can track the regeneration of woodland and tell farmers where to apply fertilizer or pesticide. They can fly swiftly into disaster zones. For example, in Mozambique in March, they revealed flooding, damage and survivors in the wake of Cyclone Idai.
The technology is advancing and costs are falling (see Nature 498, 156–158; 2013). Carbon-fibre frames are strong yet lightweight. Electronics and batteries are getting smaller and using less power. On-board GPS systems and flight-planning software make manoeuvring simple and safe. Myriad sensors can be deployed, from three-colour cameras such as those on smartphones to sophisticated laser altimeters and thermal sensors. Processing algorithms can turn sequences of pictures into 3D imagery and data sets.
But drones could do much more for scientific research. They can currently only be flown for up to an hour before needing to be recharged, and regulations, data standards and processing algorithms all fall short. Scientists need to work with regulators and software developers to improve laws and data products. Here we propose four steps towards improvement.
Legal frameworks controlling the civilian uses of drones vary widely around the world (see https://uavcoach.com/drone-laws). One-quarter of countries, including most European Union nations, Canada and the United States, have strict laws detailing how, when, where and for what purpose drones can be used. Pilot proficiency, hardware registration, flight specifications and insurance are commonly also required. Another one-third of nations lack legislation. Some countries, including Cuba, Iran and Morocco, ban drones altogether. Others, such as India, are opening up markets slowly by regulating only a few uses.
Such regulatory confusion deters many scientists from conducting research with drones, especially in cities or areas that have heavy air traffic. Contractors are often hired to do the surveying. But third parties cannot respond as well as scientists to real-time changes in data needs. Such inflexibility limits drone applications, increases costs and hampers innovation.
Some regulations hinder scientific uses. For example, requiring that the drone is in view of the operator at all times protects pedestrians on New York City’s streets from crashes and intrusion. But it also prevents researchers from monitoring urban green spaces from the air or, in other regions, from detecting illegal logging in dense forests. These laws also stop scientists using drones far away from populated areas, to study scrub encroachment in the Amazon basin or snow melt in the Arctic or the Himalayas5.
Misuse of drones is perhaps the greatest threat to widening their use. Disapproval from the public or funders can lead to tighter regulations or bans. Concerns have been raised over their impacts on wildlife. For example, flying drones over black bears in the United States quadrupled the animals’ heart rates6. Drone flights have been illegal in all US National Parks since August 2014, in part because of their effects on wildlife. Earlier that year, for instance, an illegal drone in Utah’s Zion National Park scattered herds of bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) and separated several young from adults. In 2018, the grounding of commercial air traffic by rogue drone operators in the United Kingdom led the government to extend no-fly zones around airports, limit flight heights and demand more training for drone pilots.
Regulation moves more slowly than technology. A prime example is the capacity for many drones to fly together and collaborate as a ‘swarm’. Drone swarms for military uses such as surveillance are being developed by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Drone swarms hold promise for science, too, and would speed up data collection over large areas. But current US regulations require drones to be in the line of sight of a single operator. This effectively prevents swarms from being flown, because it is impossible to ensure that all drones in a swarm can be seen by one operator.
Standardizing drone laws across regions and countries would simplify enforcement and promote consistency. There is progress: in November 2018, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) released a draft of the First International Drone Standards for a short period of public comment. The standards focus on: classification, design, manufacture, operation (including maintenance) and safety management. When the standards are finally released, scientists must provide feedback on them.
Researchers must collaborate with policymakers to ensure that drone regulations are fit for research as well as other purposes. For example, special licences could be set up. Some regulations, such as line-of-sight requirements, could have exemptions for scientific studies away from populated areas.
Systems for directing drone flights need improving to protect public safety, privacy and to avoid collisions. Regulatory restrictions should be programmed in and updated as legislation evolves. Collision-avoidance systems are increasingly installed on drones. These use on-board sensors to detect nearby obstacles or craft and then warn users to adjust the vehicle’s course, or the drone can do so automatically.
Simple forms of air-traffic tracking are being integrated. For example, China’s civil aviation administration uses two cloud-computing systems for registering and monitoring drone ownership and flights — U-cloud and U-care. A drone equipped with a control module can access the systems, which warn operators about flight zones and speed limits.
Drone developers, such as the world’s largest, DJI, in Shenzhen, China, are beginning to show regulatory and safety hazards on maps in the control software. Derived from local aviation maps and regulations, these use GPS and other navigational satellite signals to restrict the heights at which the craft…