- Drones are helping prevent the spread of diseases like dengue fever and tuberculosis.
- Aerial seeding projects are behind efforts to restore mangrove forests and regenerate agricultural land.
- Drone pilots are keeping an eye on conservation efforts to protect olive ridley turtles in India.
The overhead buzzing of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – aka drones – is an increasingly familiar sound in many parts of the world.
Whether these helicopter-like devices are flown for fun, military purposes or commercial reasons, the global drone market is predicted to increase annually by nearly 14% between 2020 and 2025.
Drones can give operators a birds-eye view of events – including natural disasters – as they unfold. And they can open up difficult-to-access places for emergency supplies to be delivered. This makes them well-suited to help in the response to humanitarian and environmental challenges.
1. Drones are helping tackle a deadly disease in Nepal
Efforts to contain the spread of tuberculosis in Nepal have received help from drone pilots. Almost half of the population has the bacterial infection, and it is among the country’s top 10 causes of death, according to the National Tuberculosis Control Centre.
Some villages in the Himalayan country’s mountainous terrain can be hard to reach by land, leaving residents with limited access to healthcare.
“Sometimes due to fever, diarrhoea or a very small problem, people are forced to die because it takes them several hours to reach a nearby health facility,” explains Uttam Pudaisaini, Executive Director of Nepal Flying Labs.
The Flying Labs network began in Nepal to empower local communities to use drones and now operates in over 30 countries.
Drones can transport test samples quickly and safely over mountainous areas, helping to speed up testing in rural areas and slow the spread of the disease.
2. Mosquito-releasing drones are fighting Dengue fever in Fiji
The South Pacific Islands are highly vulnerable to climate change, according to the World Health Organization. In Fiji, severe flooding has led to increased standing water that remains for long periods, creating the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes that transmit diseases like Zika and dengue fever.
Insecticide sprays do little to halt the spread of these killer diseases. One solution could be Wolbachia, a naturally-occurring bacteria that reduces mosquitoes' ability to transmit some viruses. Releasing Wolbachia-treated mosquitoes into the wild could spread the bacteria to local mosquito populations and in turn reduce the transmission of dengue fever.
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But driving around towns and villages releasing canisters of treated mosquitoes limits release to roadside areas, which can become impassable during rainy seasons.
Engineers from technology initiative WeRobotics have teamed up with the World Mosquito Program to develop a temperature-controlled aerial release mechanism for drones, which can hold up to 160,000 Wolbachia-treated mosquitoes and release 200 at 50-metre intervals. Aerial releases are much faster than ground releases and can cover a more expansive area, even during monsoons, helping to protect against dengue fever.
3. Aerial seeding is restoring Panama’s mangrove forests
A combination of local community efforts and drone technology is using aerial seeding to restore Panama’s mangrove forests.
Using a specially engineered storage and release system, a drone can release 750 seed balls across a hectare of land in under five minutes. This approach speeds up replanting efforts, reducing the need for traditional hand planting, which is labour intensive and costly, especially in muddy or hard-to-access areas.
“Now in Panama, people understand and identify a lot of benefits from using drones,” says Dania Montenegro, project manager at FlyingLabs Panama. “And they understand that these instruments can help establish a baseline for a lot of projects.”
A high percentage of the mangrove seeds enter the soil when dropped from heights between two and three metres; the difficult part is ensuring the seeds grow. Success rests on integrating drone technology with local community engagement to ensure the mangrove seeds are looked after as they mature and beyond.
Mangroves can store five times more carbon than tropical forests, so they are important in the fight against climate change.
4. In Kenya, drones are helping to reforest the land around nine villages
Kenya is enlisting the help of drone operators to reforest the land around nine villages in Tana River County. Unsustainable farming practices, wood fuel harvesting and deforestation have degraded the agricultural land that supports local livelihoods.
Engineers from Kenya’s Flying Labs used aerial imagery to map 2,250 acres of land and identify the site’s main types of vegetation, ready for reseeding with indigenous trees. This helps boost the area’s climate resilience and supports local communities to sustainably manage their land.
Phase two of the project involves using specially adapted drone technology to drop seed balls from the air across the degraded areas. Aerial reseeding is a speedy, efficient and cost-effective way to replace the laborious manual work that farmers would otherwise face.
5. Aerial monitoring is supporting turtle conservation in Goa
Drones and turtles may not seem an obvious pairing, but researchers are using UAVs to help efforts to conserve Goa’s olive ridley sea turtles.
Olive ridley turtles are classified as a vulnerable species by the IUCN Red List, with numbers declining. Females return to the same beach where they were born to lay eggs, which have a low survival rate. Human activity can disturb the turtles and reduce the available nesting sites on the beach.
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Working in collaboration with the government, WWF India and the private sector, drone operators from WeRobotics are using their flying skills to record the number of female turtles arriving on Goa’s beaches, saving time while not disturbing the animals.
Media and data collected can help inform population surveys, policy decisions, conservation planning and community engagement. It could also inspire the next generation of drone enthusiasts.