Drones and Our Geospatial Future

As a scientist, I am always looking for innovative new ways to conduct my research. Over the past decade, drone technology has been a highlight for me in this respect. To see more and more scientists from many different disciplines now using drones as part of their data collection toolbox is really exciting! This growth is set to continue throughout the next decade and I look forward to seeing new applications in environmental monitoring with drones helping to support data driven decisions.

Data underpins decisions made in the large majority of sectors, whether that is retail shopping, marketing, or political campaigns, and of course scientific research. Data can take many different forms, but I am most interested in the geospatial data that we can obtain from drones. Geospatial data is unique in that it records where the data were captured, so it can be mapped to a specific location on earth. Drone based geospatial data is largely in the form of aerial imagery, though also includes data from other sensor payloads.

Drones have democratised geospatial image data capture that was previously locked up with aerial survey and satellites owned by large organisations (e.g. NASA, USGS) and specialist survey companies. With tens of thousands of drones now flown in the hobby / recreation sector, this opens a new means of data collection to the masses.

And masses of data we are collecting! We are now talking in the order of zettabytes (1021 bytes) – though not just from drones. In 2020, I hope to see us starting to curate this valuable environmental data and joining the citizen science movement on a broader scale.

Citizen science is science beyond the PhDs, with everyday people taking an interest in what is happening in their backyard, and how they can help scientists solve larger problems. By collecting millions of data points (including drone photos), and having these centrally collected, it allows us to analyse patterns and processes in the environment, and to measure how things are changing over time.

Our whole planet is constantly changing over time. In 2019, we saw a worldwide awakening around climate change. With bushfires in the Amazon, Siberia, and most recently Australia, there has been a devastating impact on the environment. This collision of environmental impact, climate change, and often devastation happening right in their backyards, has bought about the question of – what can I do to help create a better future?

So we have the ability to collect valuable environmental data, and large numbers of people wanting to help do so. We have desire, intent, and ability. We also have computing power and a growing number of algorithms available for processing masses of data.

In 2020 I believe that we need to harness these components to inform truly innovative solutions to some of our big environmental challenges. These are my recommendations of the steps we can take to achieve traction on this, noting that we are already part-way along this journey:

  1. Develop standardized methods for drone based geospatial data capture to ensure that any change detected is not an artefact of the data capture method;
  2. Develop algorithms specific to the high spatial resolution of drone image data;
  3. Create publicly available archives to search and discover drone data; and
  4. Educate the public to show that drones capture more than just pretty pictures, and that they can help collecting geospatial data.

Dr. Karen Joyce
Senior Lecturer, James Cook University
Education Director, She Maps

“Expert Insight” is the independent views and opinions of the submitting named author of this article.

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