Drones: A Hate-Love Relationship
By Grant Brown, Founder, Happy Eco News
I hate drones, I love drones.
When the new breed of personal quad copters came on the market I was intrigued; small, light, versatile, easy to fly and equipped with rechargeable batteries and a decent camera, they provide a unique view of the world. Videographers love them and the amazing images they provided were before only attainable from helicopter. An average videographer could now include cinematic quality aerial footage that would raise the quality of their work beyond others that were confined to the ground.
I was impressed. I bought one.
My wife has a vlog on YouTube, so justification rationale was easy to obtain. We took it on a trip to Mexico with family. I shot high definition footage of the beach and the small town where we were staying (here is a link to my New Year drone video from 2018/2020).
But then I started to get a reality check. Once, when flying in a remote location near where a river meets the sea, the sound of the drone startled a flock of birds. The resulting chaos sent hundreds of birds to the sky, flying all around the drone and could have easily resulted in one of them being struck and injured. Not at all what I had wanted and thankfully, all escaped unharmed.
I had always tried to maintain respectful boundaries when flying, for privacy and for safety reasons. I myself wouldn’t want to look out my own bedroom window to see a drone recording me, so why would I give someone any reason to worry about my flying? I wasn’t yet an experienced drone pilot, so I avoided flying over crowds as well as wildlife.
On another day, two walkers approached while I was flying. They were about my age, dressed like me and obviously interested in being in nature. They could have been my friends or my acquaintances. Instead of expressing interest in the drone or the footage I was obtaining, they said nothing and silently walked past me on the path glaring at me for noisily intruding on a beautiful and quiet place. Wake up call for Grant.
I began to notice other drones flying around and their pilots obviously were not so respectful. I saw one fly over a crowded beach just above head height – the operator nowhere to be seen. Reports of drones harassing livestock or recording people in their homes began to surface.
I began to feel self-conscious when flying and painfully aware of the intrusive nature of the device. While it is a good tool to document and record nature or human events, it is intrusive in a way unlike many things I’ve seen. It is something completely foreign in a way that defies clear description; it is small but noisy, and sounds like an angry swarm of unnatural wasps. It is almost invisible at high altitude but once you know it’s there, you know that it could be watching and recording you. It’s small but dangerous and can be perceived as very threatening even if the operator doesn’t intend it to be. A 900 g object flying at 60 kph with propellers turning at 12,000 rpm at all 4 corners can make for a nasty impact if it were to hit anything. Many are even larger with even higher speeds and power.
Flying the drone was no longer just fun and games. I still have it but will only fly it in specific circumstances that are legal, safe and respectful. Many drones have carried out confined space rescues and helped people get confined space rescue certification.
While the thought of quiet, wild places overrun by drones is not very appealing, neither is the idea of our cities’ airspace full of robots. Some corporations and government agencies envision drones everywhere. Delivering a variety of items, monitoring, observing and always, always collecting as much data as possible. Just like social media and search engine companies, these organizations are not asking for permission to keep your personal information and data, they are just doing it until society says no. Delivering packages by drone seems very expensive and resource intensive, especially in the beginning. How does the company offset the long-term cost? Data, lots and lots of data.
For me, I resign to the fact that I gave up my complete privacy years ago, I just don’t want to live in a place where I see or hear them every time I go outside.
I love drones because they can help humanity, not just mega companies. In the article 11 Ways Drones Will Change the World for the Better writer Joe McGauley explores the ways in which drones may help humanity. There are 11 varied ideas, but number one on the list is to combat global warming. As we know, drones are highly efficient at collecting data of all types, and this includes environmental data. AI helps interpret what the drones observe, and scientists are able to rapidly and inexpensively obtain usable information from areas that were previously too difficult or expensive to reach. Drones can track daily weather, topography, glacial size, snowpack, even numbers and size of plants and animals.
In Reforestation Drones Can Plant 100K Trees In An Hour, writer Lee Mathews profiles a new reforestation technology by start-up BioCarbon Engineering that uses drones to plant trees. The program consists of two separate types of drone; one that flies over and records topography and ground cover data, and another that uses this data to plant two different species of tree seeds depending on location. Intended to ensure the highest probability of germination, it also provides a small amount of biodiversity as well.
The best part of this program is the speed with which it deploys the payload. Working together, the drones can plant up to 100,000 seeds in a day. Let that sink in. One hundred thousand every day. They don’t need a day off, they just keep flying and planting, stopping only to recharge and reload with seeds. That number is astounding.
To be clear, these are seeds, not actual trees. The seeds must end up in a suitable location and germinate before they can grow. Only after a number of years will they become trees. It is true that not all will make it past germination, but the sheer number of seeds these drones can plant is staggering. They can plant 10 times the number for 85% lower cost than by traditional tree planting by humans. Scale up the program and we are talking about billions of trees in a year. The CEO is quoted as saying he wants to plant half a trillion trees in the coming decades!
We do need more trees. As I have written about in previous posts there are huge swaths of land on the planet that could support high concentrations of trees that will help sequester atmospheric carbon and provide food and shade for humans. Estimates are that we will need to plant a trillion of them in order to offset current carbon emissions by humans. If one company can realistically plant half that using current technology, imagine what we can do if we put some serious global effort behind it.
So, while I don’t really care for the idea of drones flying through every part of my day to day life, it gives hope to know that there are innovators who are using the technology to help undo some of the degradation of the past.