Drones, for many people, are simply helicopter-like small aircraft that fly around taking photos and videos for fun events and advertisements. Some people may know of their use in search and rescue, law enforcement and disaster relief. However, few people may realise that drones are also critical technology that can be used right now for applied research and development.
Drones have many applications and advantages in small island developing states such as ours where remote sensing by space-based satellites or aeroplanes have many limitations. Drones allow more cost-effective use of limited human, physical and financial resources. At the Cave Hill campus of the University of the West Indies, researchers and field technicians work with local, regional and international partners to build capacity in using drones for social and economic development. We think they can be a game changer for working smarter, not harder.
Using drones, their various sensors and software (together called Unmanned Aerial Systems or UAS) for marine and terrestrial fieldwork is part of the work programme at the UWI Centre for Resource Management and Environmental Studies (CERMES) in the Faculty of Science and Technology. CERMES collaborates with other universities, non-governmental organisations, the private sector, government departments and inter-governmental agencies on drone uses. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is one of our main regional and global partners. All of these partners have responsible sustainable development as a core aim.
In coastal and marine work, drones can be used to estimate amounts of sargassum seaweed, the locations of sea turtle nests, situations at drainage outfalls, state of coastal vegetation, condition of coral reefs and other shallow underwater features. All of these inform coastal management, some emergency operations and physical development by cutting down on the human effort while increasing the volume and quality of information.
Drones in terrestrial work such as agriculture and forestry are used for accurate measurement of large plots, classifying vegetation types, three-dimensional mapping, determining the health and yield of food crops for harvest and so on. Agronomists and farmers can save lots of time and money. Livestock farmers with large or remote grazing lands can also literally keep an eye on their dispersed herds. In the Eastern Caribbean, drones can reduce the hard work of monitoring farmlands in watersheds with steep terrain and rivers in some islands.
When drones are used in applied research and development their aerial period is often short compared to the much longer time required to process the information collected. Seldom are they flown completely manually. They are usually programmed using software to follow predetermined flight paths to cover specially permitted areas without invading people’s privacy or endangering anyone. Ensuring privacy and safety are of paramount importance to certified drone operators who always seek to comply with local laws and international good practices.
While high quality video cameras are common, science drones often carry a variety of other, more specialised, sensors to record information that we cannot see unaided. When combined with an accurate geographic positioning system, UAS in the hands of a skilled person can map data and information in three dimensions, showing changes over time when surveys are repeated. Remote areas, dangerous terrain and other conditions hazardous to humans are not challenging when operations are well planned and executed.
UWI Cave Hill Campus and its partners see the increasing and improved use of drones in development as an area to which we can contribute, and an area in which Caribbean countries can work smarter, even from now.
Dr Patrick McConney
Senior Lecturer (Marine Resource Management Planning) and Director
Centre for Resource Management and Environmental Studies (CERMES)
The University of the West Indies
Cave Hill Campus, Barbados, W.I.