Drones can offer the public sector a treasure trove of data: we can't just view them as a threat from the skies

Written by Dr Monica Rivas Casaldo on 3 March 2016 in Opinion

Cranfield University expert Dr Monica Rivas Casaldo says drones offer the public sector huge potential to collect vital environmental data that shouldn't be overshadowed by a failure to regulate for their misuse.

Drones have got themselves a bad name as a “pest” of the air. Dutch police are training eagles to take down illegal drones, leading to interest from the Metropolitan Police; Japan uses unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) carrying nets to clear rogue drones; a US technology firm has started to sell a drone “death-ray” to airports.

Regulation hasn’t been able to keep up with the technology, and the danger is that illicit use of UAVs taints both public and official attitudes and undermines the debate on practical applications. There are many situations where drones can be the answer to difficult challenges around monitoring and information-gathering in hazardous or hard-to-reach locations: in supporting emergency services, crash incident scenes, environmental monitoring and as the basis for planning and managing risks and costs.

This winter’s major flooding in the north has demonstrated the value and potential of drones. With expertise in freshwater ecosystems and river management, I visited Cockermouth, one of the worst affected areas. I conducted a survey with UAVs that allowed me and my team to map with high accuracy the affected area. The areas we visited were completely devastated in the aftermath of the floods. Many people lost the contents of their homes. The emergency services and the army were on site to provide support and aid to the local people. Roads had debris scattered all along them for miles, and some bridges had totally or partially collapsed. Soil movement had also exposed pipes and drainage systems to the elements.

Better and faster than satellites

Within the difficult context of severe flooding, drones have the potential to help researchers to map with very high accuracy the extent and damage of a flood. Unlike other options, such as satellite imaging, they can be rapidly, inexpensively, and flexibly deployed. Their ability to scout areas reduces distortion caused by building shadows or atmospheric conditions like cloud or pollution, which can look like flood areas. The immediacy of drones can also help to deploy emergency resources where and when they are most needed, helping isolated communities or directing efforts to protect properties or infrastructure.

As far as we know, the Cockermouth project was the first time the Civil Aviation Authority has given permission to carry out survey works over any congested space in the UK, with a range of 1,000m from the pilot and up to a potential altitude of 120m above ground level. Funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, this new opportunity brought together commercial flood modelling and risk specialists Ambiental with academic expertise from Cranfield University as well as colleagues from the University of Leicester, Loughborough University and Imperial College London. It’s part of a larger “Drone Watch” project which aims to advance flood-extent mapping and refine current insurance industry practice in evidence-based flood damage assessment. We’re hoping to prove the feasibility of a novel approach that integrates both high-resolution drone aerial imagery and satellite data. The potential applications include 3D visualisations, maps and databases of point damage as well as flood-extent delineation.

In another project, working alongside the Environment Agency, UAVs are being used to capture images along the entire lengths of rivers, monitoring the characteristics of water courses and the effect these have on the surrounding areas. The photographs provide enough detail to identify areas of erosion or slow moving water and can be used to help identify places that may require restoration, and areas vulnerable to flooding.

Technology will provide safety solutions

Evidence suggests that extreme weather events, including floods, are going to become more frequent, putting a huge strain on affected homeowners and landowners, as well as pressure on state support services. The UK has the technology to be a leader internationally in demonstrating the potential for well-managed, targeted use of UAVs - meaning business opportunities in addition to the opportunities for finding new solutions to challenges of access and capturing evidence. New technology is under development to create small and reliable UAV systems that have an in-built “detect and avoid” capability, allowing the devices to take responsibility for anticipating the potential for any collisions.

What’s needed to make a positive, UAV-enhanced future happen is a practical roadmap for integrating UAVs into UK airspace, clearly distinguishing between what are unfairly assumed to be the “pests” and the new partners in public safety.

Dr Monica Rivas Casaldo is a lecturer in applied environmental statistics at Cranfield University. Her research focuses on the integration of emerging technologies, advanced statistics and environmental engineering for the design of robust monitoring strategies.

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