UAV-assisted sustainability science

By Jack Simkin

One of the first questions we were asked after purchasing our DJI Phantom 3 quadcopter was “Why”? (Often followed by “How much did it cost”?)

Along with providing the Sustainability Science Lab with fantastic aerial footage, photos and the potential for future multispectral analyses, the quadcopter has huge potential for use in the exploration of human-nature dynamics.

In the lead up to the world’s first ‘World of Drones Congress’ in Brisbane, Queensland in August, we thought we should explore some of the lesser known applications of UAV technology in academic research.

What is a quadcopter?

Quadcopters are unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAV. They can operate through handheld remote controls, smartphone technology, and from long distances through satellite connections.

Modern technology has allowed for greater accessibility to UAVs, with easy to use controls, longer battery life, and greater resolution cameras available at lower prices. There are legitimate concerns surrounding the misuse of the technology, however we believe there is a huge potential for UAVs to facilitate the collection and analysis of sustainability science data.

Existing UAV usage in science

Technological advances have meant UAVs have been touted as the next step in conservation, emergency services, and efficient agricultural practices.

Real world applications of cutting edge UAV research at the University of Melbourne are becoming crucial for monitoring irrigation efficiency, hydrology and bushfire recovery.

In addition to those highly practical uses, we contest that UAVs have a significant role in the research of social-ecological systems, human-nature dynamics, and social sciences.

How can a UAV contribute to sustainability science research?

UAVs allow for a combination of data collection and analysis – ranging from ‘hard’ data (mapping, monitoring and quantification of change) to ‘soft’ data (engagement, interaction, and connection to place). Both of these forms of data, and enhanced potential for integrating multiple perspectives are crucial for effective for transdisciplinary sustainability science research.

The concept of ‘place attachment’ has been established as a viable measure of community’s acceptance or opposition to development, particularly in the field of wind farm technologies. Recent research has investigated the social-ecological connection between environmental behaviours and sense of place in rural Australian farmers.

Through understanding a person’s subjective attachment to a location, we can begin to unpack the ways in which environmental, social and economic changes can be incorporated into land use planning.

UAVs provide an avenue for displaying new angles of that location, and provides researchers with a clearer understanding of how a sense of place attachment can be constructed. Two dimensional maps can present a limited portrayal of actual conditions, and can be involved in institutional power issues.

Advances in technology present options for landholders to see their property in new ways, and provides ways for people of all backgrounds to explain what they perceive as important, and why – all from the ground with a UAV and a smartphone.

There are also applications for increasing participation in data collection and analysis. Citizen science is a well-established method for encouraging engagement in ecological and environmental monitoring and evaluation. UAV technology presents pathways for citizen scientists to both contribute to the collection of high quality data, and help in the analysis process. UAVs are producing ways for the everyday person to be involved in high quality research, bridging the knowledge gaps between institutions and communities.

Photo: Dr Sebastian Thomas and the locals flying our quadcopter in Fiji in April 2017  Source: Sebastian Thomas

Photo: Dr Sebastian Thomas and the locals flying our quadcopter in Fiji in April 2017 Source: Sebastian Thomas

The new age of UAV assisted research

Finally, it should be mentioned that UAVs have a significant role to play in community engagement. In recent SL@M fieldwork in Indonesia and Fiji, collecting quadcopter aerial footage and photographs allowed the researchers to get a greater understanding of how the community interacts with nature, and how nature impacts the community.

In addition to giving the community a way to show us as researchers their landscape, it also presents opportunities for researchers to engage with the community. As soon as the quadcopter leaves the ground, people from all angles come to see what the fuss is about, and what they can see from the control screen. Quadcopters create avenues for researchers to become part of the community, which makes subsequent interviewing, discussions, and research so much easier.

In short, quadcopters, and UAVs in general, have the capacity to facilitate research in both hard and soft sciences. This booming industry can shape academic research for years to come.

Combining both approaches is critical to the sustainability science approach to provide solutions to real-world ‘wicked problems’.

This post originally appeared on the University of Melbourne's Scientific Scribbles blog

Banner image: authors own