An explosion of drones: new technology in the geosciences

Scientists can now research and explore hidden corners of the world... with drones!
23 July 2015


Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are remote controlled aircraft, which can be melded with advanced visual technologies for multiple purposes. Originating from within the military industrial complex, drones have been primarily used in surveillance and combat capabilities in warfare. Yet increasingly in the past few years, their usefulness has been recognized outside the battlefield and within commercial and private domains; including in scientific research. A particularly interesting context of its use has been the accruing of new data within the geosciences.

Drone geology

Drones are increasingly making their presence felt in the world of geosciences. From the cold wastes of the Arctic to the steaming jungles of the Amazon, small, relatively cheap and flexible drones are allowing researchers to both see the world from new perspectives and gain access to inhospitable terrain. How is this new technology being used? And what are the implications of this for the future?

Drones started out in geoscience simply taking photos. One example is their use to record glacial systems in Iceland. The images captured from a drone have been used to study processes such as how much of an area a glacier covers and how the position of the edge of the glacier changes. They have also been used to look at older glacial features such as glacial landforms and the imprint they leave behind. The great benefit of using a drone in this instance is that you can rapidly access images of both new areas and also access repeat images of changing environments; something not possible with the traditional methods of aerial photography and ground survey. Recent advances in computer vision and image matching technology means that these images, if taken from a variety of angles, can be used to generate high resolution 3D models of the landscape. This is effectively an evolution of the WWII era technology of photogrammetry, (which uses two overlapping photos to create a 3D effect) creating for scientists a more 'complete' picture of the environment in which they work.

3D model

However, scientists are not content with simply strapping a camera to a drone! As technology improves and heavier payloads can be flown, we are increasingly seeing advanced visual technologies such as LiDAR (light imaging detection and ranging) deployed into the field. Perhaps the most well-known example of this has been the efforts in the Amazon to detect geoglyphs, large geometric patterns etched into the landscape, which may signify the remains of
long lost civilisations. With the aid of lasers combined with the portability and flexibility of a drone, we can see through forest canopies that so often obscure the true landscape and draw startling new conclusions. Through the visualization of these large-scale, man-made earthworks, it is now being suggested that perhaps very little to none of the Amazon rainforest can be considered 'original' rainforest. Rather, the landscape we see today may be the result of historical human influence, therefore understanding the Amazon anew as possibly 'secondary' rainforest. In light of these discoveries, perhaps one can say we are truly in the anthropocene, a geological age of humanity, revealed to us today through the 'new eyes in the sky'.Amazon Geoglyphs

Another example of a major application of drone technology has been its use within the geological assessment of facies, distinctive rock units formed under certain conditions of sedimentation and fracture, along with fault related fracture mapping, cracks in the bedrock that are the result of tectonic activity. In other words, drones are being used to examine where and what the rocks are doing in response to earthquakes and associated pressures.
The oil and gas industries are perhaps unsurprisingly leading the way in this particular application, using the technology to more rapidly and accurately assess natural resource reservoirs for potential exploitation. The interests of industry intersect with academia, through their funding and development of further applications. The key use of the drone here is its ability to increase both the speed and scale of data acquisition. Prior to the emergence of this new technology, data acquisition was limited by how much ground a geologist could cover in a day. With a drone, whole regions can be covered in short periods of time, with a variety of instrument packages granting new, penetrating views of the world.

And as a final and perhaps most dramatic example of drone application is its use by volcanologists to gather data from some of the most hostile places on earth, in particular, the
lava lakes of active volcanoes. Venturing where no human can, the drone can assess sites for possible sample collection for the scientist as well as potentially collect samples itself. In such dangerous locations it is perhaps inevitable that some drones get lost. However, this is generally viewed as preferable to losing scientists... In this case in particular, the ability of the drone to access an area once impossible to reach allows the gathering of new data on previously unstudied phenomenon, such as life-forms occurring in the inhospitable environments of geysers and gas vents. The un-explored spaces on Earth grow ever smaller with the application of this new technology.

In all of these examples drones allow scientists to gather data from new areas through a new perspective, forcing the scientist to deal with natural phenomena in a different way. One major difference is the accumulation of data at a speed which is well beyond any analogue methods. This overload of data poses new problems for the scientist. On the one hand, drones accumulate data at a rapid pace yet on the other, it takes an increased amount of time to create meaningful analysis from all the data, for example to create 3D models, digitise maps or extract orientation data. The speed at which this data is accrued can go beyond human capacity, introducing the need to automate the analysis process of data as well.

With all the innovation drones in the geosciences provide, there is also the question of how this new knowledge affects traditional methods of observation within geoscience. The aerial view of a drone equals a certain amount of distance to the natural phenomenon being observed. Even with advanced technologies that can read microscopic information, one's own physical relationship to nature is replaced with the lens of the drone. The base description of the job of the geoscientist is to classify, in other words, to make order out of chaos. This is primarily done through the simple act of measurement. As Lord Kelvin said, 'if you cannot measure it, then it is not science.' How does the perspective and reliance on observation through the drone depart from classification methods found through good ol' 'ground truthing'? One example concerns the parameters of measurement of natural phenomenon for the geoscientist. The origin of measurements is based on the scale of the human body in relation to nature. For example the width of the thumb was the basis for the inch, and the human foot as the basis for the measurement of a foot, etc. The drone and the data it can accumulate creates a new relationship of scale; one not based on a physical relationship of the observer to the phenomenon but rather based on a distanced observation from an aerial perspective of the drone. Scale thereby, becomes a new frontier for setting parameters in measuring natural phenomenon through a drone. This emphasizes the reality that we are no longer looking at the natural world as it is, but rather our observations are becoming dependent on the filter of its reproduction, which gets further manipulated through the automating processes of software.

Drone view

By using a drone, we can see the earth from a whole new perspective and at new angles. We can see un-ventured areas, making large portions of the world suddenly accessible to the human gaze. Individuals have the chance to gather data and participate in the resulting scientific discourse in a way that was previously not possible. Combined with publically available geographic viewing and analysis systems such a Google Earth© and GRASS GIS©, any individual can be an investigator of the Earth and the people that live upon it. The democratisation of the aerial perspective we argue, is a positive thing. The rush of individuals to assist with
post-disaster mapping in cases such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and many subsequent natural disasters is perhaps the best example of this. In this sort of scenario we have seen the ability of non-governmental organisations to rapidly gather both open source pre-existing data and donated imagery from corporations. Combined with information coming in from people on the ground- both aid agencies but most importantly from those affected, often via mobile networks and social media; resulting in a far more detailed and accurate picture of the locale and the people within it, than one gathered by traditional means.

Drones provide a new way to view the world we live in. Knowledge is an ever evolving result of experience, experiment, thought and time. There is no doubt that the present fascination with drones is ushering in a new evolution of knowledge.


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