The Green Side of Drones: Science and Environmental Apps Abound

John Cherbini and Joshua Ott of 3D Robotics, setting up a thermal imaging camera for infrared shots. Photo by Aarti Shahani

It appears that “drones” are here to stay. And Silicon Valley drone makers are going beyond military and spy applications, creating new environmental uses for unmanned aerial vehicles.

On Friday afternoons, you’ll usually find Chris Anderson out by the Berkeley Marina, tinkering with his squadron of drones. Looking up at the sky as one of his creations buzzes about, he can’t help blurting out, "So that’s just freakin’ cool, right?"

For Anderson, this is serious stuff. He quit his job as editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine to build 3D Robotics. The do-it-yourself drone company based in San Diego, won’t do military projects. That's part of a compact it has with about 40 thousand developers in its online community.

A few of them are here today, testing a 2-pound fixed-wing airplane that’s carrying a pocket-sized near-infrared camera, which is nothing more than a regular point-and-shoot model, with the plastic filter popped off.

"Our eyes are like the worst eyes in the animal kingdom,” Anderson says. “The cameras have been sort of crippled, to resemble the human eye. So we ‘un-cripple’ these cameras, to see the world the way an insect would see it."

Photo: Systems Program, UC Berkeley Engineering

This mini-airplane with a 2-and-half foot wingspan is different from conventional remote-controlled planes because it’s flying without a human operator. It’s following GPS coordinates plugged in before take-off. Other drones track moving objects on the ground using sensors.

"The more autonomous, the more drone-like they are," Anderson says.

The drone darts back and forth in a lawnmower pattern, 150 feet above the grass. It’s reporting its position to a laptop, and snapping pictures to stitch together a high-resolution map of the marina.

That image may not be something the world desperately needs but Anderson says farmers could use this kind of data gathering and image processing for crop surveys, to figure out what plants need water.

"A healthy plant will absorb the red light, but reflect the infrared,” he explains. “But as chlorophyll is damaged, it'll start to reflect the red as well. So the ratio of the infrared and the red tells you the health of the plant."

The application isn’t quite ready to go wheels-up. Anderson is still working on getting his drones to tell up from down. The accelerators, the gyroscopes, the magnetometers and GPS have to get better at correcting each other.

Also, it's illegal to fly drones for profit. The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to issue regulations by 2015. Anderson points out that a camera on a drone is far more regulated than the one in his iPhone. "We've seen what camera phones have done to spread cameras everywhere, except for in the sky. The sky's empty."

This drone above the Berkeley Marina follows GPS coordinates and takes pictures at specified points to create a terrestrial map. Photo courtesy of 3D Robotics
This drone above the Berkeley Marina follows GPS coordinates and takes pictures at specified points to create a terrestrial map. Photo: 3D Robotics

Unforeseen Issues

Silicon Valley technology forecaster Paul Saffo says one man’s drone utopia could be another’s dystopia. "There are going to be people upset enough by these drones, that they're going to figure out counter-measures,” he predicts, “whether it's shining lasers into their sensor systems, or perhaps a shotgun."

Drones could be used for search and rescue, to drop medicine in remote villages, to scout debris from tsunamis, or to count wildlife.

But environmental and scientific uses may end up not being the most popular. Saffo says drones could also be the next killer app for police spying on homes and teenage boys peeking into the girls' locker room.

There are already signs of civilian conflict. The animal rights group PETA is shopping for drones to prevent illegal hunting while hunters vow to shoot down those eyes in the sky. Lawmakers in California and other states that embrace self-driving cars are drafting bills to limit self-driving aerial vehicles, out of privacy concerns.

Saffo isn't convinced just yet that privacy will emerge as the main issue. He likens the current state of drones to when automobiles first arrived a century ago. “There were cities that required somebody walking in front of the automobile with a red flag, warning off horses and riders,” he recounted. “Turned out that wasn’t an issue. But traffic jams were an issue, and nobody imagined traffic jams.”

A Low-Cost Solution

Raja Sengupta is the go-to drones professor at UC Berkeley’s engineering school. On a recent day, he and three of his students gathered at Oakland’s Lake Merritt, to test a small drone that could help merchant ships avoid collisions with whales or icebergs.

"Just imagine if the Titanic had had a drone in front of it,” he says.

Sengupta gets to skirt some of the tough issues like privacy, by taking his drones out to sea. His team did a project with Shell Oil using drones last year. Sengupta says drones could save oil companies a lot of money. “As I understand it, they pay people to sit in Cessnas and fly around and count whales,” he tells me, then adds, “I mean, this is some part of the money we are putting into the gas tank."

A leading industry group estimates that drones will generate $82 billion and 100,000 jobs in the decade after they go commercial. Sengupata says the more important number may be the cost of building a drone. It's relatively cheap.

His student Hao Chen mounts a digital camera on a small, beat-up drone made of ice cream sticks and Styrofoam. “This whole thing is probably about 600 or 700 hundred dollars,” Chen estimates. And Sengupta estimates the data it collects is worth five thousand dollars.

Chen programs GPS coordinates into the drone and it takes off over the lake. Geese flutter away, sounding frazzled. And in two minutes, the drone vanishes. It’s completely out of sight.

"Fortunately it’s a very harmless drone,” Sengupta laughs. “It has no weapons system on it. It’s nothing like President Obama’s drones."

We can sort of see the drone's position on Google maps. It's stuck in a tree.

The National Science Foundation, which has invested $25 million in drone science over the last five years, gave Sengupta an NSF-sponsored graduate student. He climbs the tree to rescue the drone, as though it were a stranded cat.

Sengupta keeps laughing, "This is exactly the kind of doctoral student one wants -- does everything from solving a differential equation to climbing a tree."


The propeller is broken. But the pictures -- the data -- survived. Sengupta says that's proof civilian drones will take off: crashing doesn't put a deep dent in anyone's wallet.