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Using Drones for Good, Part 1: Saving Our Oceans

Last updated on

August 9, 2018


    Drones often make the news for all the wrong reasons. Whether it’s the reckless flying into no-fly zones, the spying on neighbours or the potential assassination of a president. Whenever we turn on the news, it seems drones are up to no good.

    But these news stories always focus on the outlier events. Rarely do positive stories that highlight the good work drones do make the news. This is unfortunate because drones are doing some amazing work every day to help us all lead safer and more socially responsible lives.

    Whether it’s disaster relief in earthquake hit Indonesia, the protection of endangered species in Africa, the rescue of schoolchildren from caves in Thailand or the conservation of rainforests in the Amazon. Drones are playing important search, rescue, protection and conservation roles across the world every single day, and recently have begun saving our oceans.

    So we thought it would be a good idea to run a series of posts that focus on the good work drones are doing to help protect our planet.

    In Part 1, we are going to look at the work being done to save our oceans and how drones have become an invaluable tool to help oceanographers and conservationists monitor pollution, protect wildlife, and arrange cleanup operations.

    Tackling the ocean plastic problem

    Ocean plastic pollution has reached epidemic levels. Unwanted plastic affects all corners of the planet from picturesque Cornish beaches to idyllic Pacific Islands. It has even been found embedded in Arctic ice.

    While the effects on coastal communities are bad enough, the effect on ocean life is chilling. Plastic is finding its way into the stomachs of sea creatures who mistake it for food while entangling turtles, seabirds and other sea life.

    As a result, we, the architects of the problem, are beginning to suffer as well. Plastic is finding its way onto our dinner plates via the seafood we eat.

    The Plastic Tide Project is a charity set up by Peter Kohler to tackle the problem. Kohler first noticed the blight of plastic on a sailing trip in the South Pacific. Uninhabited islands were littered with flip flops, toothbrushes and combs, Kohler says. On his return to the UK he set about doing something about it and the Plastic Tide Project was born.

    Kohler’s idea was to encourage local people to clean up beaches by showing them first hand the damage plastic waste is doing to the environment. The problem was, how to cost-effectively capture the images required to inspire locals to join a cleanup operation. UAV’s provided the answer.

    Drones help inspire a cleanup operation

    Drones equipped with HD cameras such as the DJI Matrice 600 are used to scan beaches around the world to capture images of plastic waste. Another groundbreaking technology, artificial intelligence (AI) is used to help identify polluted areas. But for this to work efficiently, the system requires access to thousands of images of plastic waste.

    To solve the problem Kohler asked locals to upload photos via social media. The drones then use the uploaded images to sharpen their plastic spotting skills. So far thousands of people across the globe have contributed by uploading images, with one committed volunteer uploading more than 7,000 images alone.

    Kohler freely admits that the Plastic Tide Project cannot solve the problem on its own. But he hopes the more traction it gets, the more people will realise the damage we are doing to the ocean and its marine life. The more visible the problem becomes, the more people will be inspired to take action he said.

    Saving entangled whales

    Cleaning up beaches isn’t the only way drones are being used to clean up the oceans and protect marine life. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are using drones to help free whales which have become entangled in fishing nets and other marine debris.

    Every year from November through May thousands of humpback whales migrate to the warm waters of Hawaii to ride out the winter. The whales have become a popular tourist attraction, with boat trips and whale watching tours arranged so people can get a closer look at these majestic creatures.

    Unfortunately, an ever increasing number of whales are becoming caught in fishing nets. This causes them great harm as the ropes dig in the animal’s skin causing deep lesions.

    In some cases, the whales drown because they are unable to reach the surface for air. Other times they can die of exhaustion and starvation as the nets make it more difficult for them to swim.

    To prevent further suffering to these endangered animals, specialists from NOAA have been working with a team of volunteers to help disentangle them from the nets.

    This is a risky business with divers having to work in close contact with distressed whales in the water. Last year a Canadian biologist was killed after a whale struck him during a rescue attempt.

    Drones make disentanglement safer

    To help make the operation safer rescuers turned to drones. Previously the rescue team would have to get close to whale three times during a rescue attempt. First to ascertain where the whale was trapped, secondly to free the whale and finally to ensure the rescue was successful and nothing was left behind.

    Drones have reduced this to just a single step. Quadcopters equipped with powerful HD cameras are used to identify where the animal is trapped.

    Divers can then work to free the whale while the drone remains in position to monitor progress. Once the rescue is complete the drone can track the animal to ensure all residual debris has been removed.

    The whole process is much safer than previous methods. While divers are still at risk from being hit, they only have to venture into the water once in order to disentangle the whale. The process is much safer for the whales as well. Rescue boats can keep a safe distance while the initial inspection is carried out.

    These are just two examples of how drone technology is helping to keep our oceans clean and its sea life safe from the damaging effects of human consumption and fishing.

    But there are many other examples where drones are being used to make a real difference. So the next time you see a negative article about drones, just think about the good they also do. Long may they continue saving our oceans.

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