Climate change is a pressing global challenge with severe consequences for ecosystems, economies, and societies. Human activities in the past decades have led to an unprecedented increase in greenhouse gas emissions, accelerating global warming and its destructive effects. Today, scientists across various technological domains are exploring ways to combat climate change and prevent the earth from a scorching future. Uncrewed vehicles have emerged as a promising solution to the managing climate change and expediting human efforts in containing its damaging effects.
Uncrewed vehicles are autonomous machines operating without a human pilot or operator, and they come in various forms, such as aerial, ground, and marine. Applications of uncrewed vehicles in industries like agriculture, forestry, ocean monitoring, and disaster response can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, conserve energy, and protect natural resources by reducing or replacing other technologies that have high carbon emissions. Drone technology is already being used in innovative ways around the world to combat climate change, by providing cheaper and more effective ways to document, monitor and tackle it.
This article explores uncrewed vehicles and their role in combating climate change. The discussion focuses on the role of these vehicles in different industries, the challenges and limitations associated with their deployment, and their future in the fight against climate change.
Uncrewed vehicles, or autonomous vehicles, are machines operating without direct human intervention. They rely on sensors, artificial intelligence, and control systems for navigation and task completion with minimal human input. Autonomy is achieved by combining technologies like computer vision, machine learning, and advanced control systems, enabling the vehicle to perceive its environment and make decisions based on data.
Uncrewed vehicles are increasingly being used for environmental monitoring and conservation efforts. These vehicles are equipped with various sensors to collect data on a number of natural parameters including air, water and soil quality, temperature, and animal and marine life. This data is then analyzed through AI to form conservation strategies, track the movement of endangered species, and identify areas of high pollution. Uncrewed vehicles also have the potential to protect ecosystems by reducing the pollution generated by conventional transportation activities. For example, uncrewed vessels can replace manned ships for tasks such as oceanographic surveys, oil spill cleanups, and environmental monitoring, reducing emissions and the risk of accidental pollution. Similarly, using aerial drones in place of surface vehicles can reduce carbon emissions and provide greater movement.
Drones are already being utilized globally for environmental monitoring and conservation. This is demonstrated by scientists of Imperial College London who have designed drones that can attach sensors to trees to monitor environmental and ecological changes in forests (1); in Costa Rica, drones have been used to monitor tree degradation and the impact of illegal logging (2); and Dendra Systems, a start-up from Oxford is using aerial drones to plant trees with an aim of achieving up to 100,000 trees a day at abandoned mines in Australia, and mangroves forests in Myanmar (3).
Transportation is the fastest growing source of emissions worldwide, and accounts for 17% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Since 1990, transport emissions have grown at an annual average rate of nearly 1.7%, faster than any other sector (4). In order to achieve the target of zero net emissions by 2050, innovative ways of reducing these emissions will have to be adopted.
Drones present a promising technology to assist in bringing these emissions down while still carrying out transportation activities. Uncrewed vehicles, particularly drones, and small ground vehicles, often use electric propulsion systems, which produce zero tailpipe emissions. As technology advances, electric propulsion becomes feasible for larger vehicles, like the autonomous electric cargo ship, Yara Birkeland, which aims to reduce CO2 emissions by up to 90% (5).
Fueled partly by the pandemic, uncrewed vehicle industry has made rapid advances in the past few years. Improvements in battery storage and reductions in costs have resulted in drones that can fly much longer distances, while advances in automation and AI have made it possible to develop drones that can communicate and deliver payloads effectively. Many nations are currently working on regulations governing drone usage and it is only a matter of time before drone technology can replace a proportion of delivery traffic and the associated carbon footprint. It will also create many new opportunities for organizations to boost productivity and efficiency while protecting the planet.
An example of a zero impact uncrewed vehicles is the Wave Glider by Liquid Robotics (6). This autonomous surface vehicle is used for ocean conservation and is powered by a combination of solar and wave energy, enabling it to conduct long-duration ocean monitoring missions with minimal environmental impact. Vehicles such as the wave glider can be designed with environmental monitoring sensors to detect various marine parameters.
Smart transportation systems integrate uncrewed vehicles with existing infrastructure, optimizing routes, reducing travel times, and minimizing energy consumption. They also facilitate renewable energy sources' integration into the charging infrastructure for electric uncrewed vehicles.
Uncrewed vehicles are increasingly being utilized in disaster response and recovery operations, providing valuable support to emergency responders and relief agencies. Drones can quickly survey disaster-affected areas, providing high-resolution imagery and data to help assess damage, locate survivors, and plan rescue operations. This rapid assessment capability can save lives by enabling first responders to prioritize their efforts and allocate resources more efficiently.
A real-life example of uncrewed vehicles in disaster response and recovery is the use of drones by humanitarian organizations such as the Red Cross. In the aftermath of natural disasters, drones have been deployed to assess damage, deliver aid, and support search and rescue operations. For instance, during the 2015 Nepal earthquake, drones were used to provide aerial imagery of the affected areas, helping to guide relief efforts and assess the extent of the damage (7).
As we have explored in this article, uncrewed vehicles are playing a pivotal role in the global effort to combat climate change. From monitoring forests and oceans to aiding in disaster relief, these autonomous technologies are proving to be invaluable assets in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preserving our natural environment. Their diverse applications in various sectors showcase the potential for significant, positive environmental impacts.
Traditionally, high-quality drone technology was the preserve of well-funded corporations or government entities. However, the software package, Cloud Ground Control, serves as a catalyst in democratizing drone technology. The product lowers the barrier to entry of drone fleet management, allowing smaller organizations, local governments, and even community groups to deploy drone fleets for various purposes. This accessibility means that more players can contribute to climate change mitigation efforts, bringing diverse perspectives and solutions.
CGC enables pilots and mission commanders to configure, monitor, and manage multiple autonomous drones and robots securely. These fleets can be used in the applications mentioned above to tackle climate change.
In conclusion, uncrewed vehicles are not just futuristic concepts; they are current, active participants in the fight against climate change. As technology advances and their applications expand, these vehicles will continue to be integral in shaping a sustainable future, demonstrating the power of innovation in addressing some of the most pressing environmental challenges of our time.
1. Brogan C. Drones that patrol forests could monitor environmental and ecological changes | Imperial News | Imperial College London [Internet]. Imperial News. 2020 [cited 2023 May 14]. Available from: https://www.imperial.ac.uk/news/207653/drones-that-patrol-forests-could-monitor/
2. Lane K. Unmanned crop monitoring helps small farmers in Costa Rica [Internet]. Springwise. 2022 [cited 2023 May 14]. Available from: https://www.springwise.com/innovation/agriculture-energy/drones-help-small-farmers/
3. Dendra Systems. Dendra | Restoration Ecology & Ecosystem Services and Management [Internet]. Dendra Systems. [cited 2023 May 14]. Available from: https://dendra.io/
4. IEA. Transport – Analysis [Internet]. Paris; 2022 [cited 2023 May 14]. Available from: https://www.iea.org/reports/transport
5. Yara Birkeland | Yara International [Internet]. Yara None. 2021 [cited 2023 May 14]. Available from: https://www.yara.com/news-and-media/media-library/press-kits/yara-birkeland-press-kit/
6. The Wave Glider | How It Works [Internet]. Liquid Robotics. [cited 2023 May 14]. Available from: https://www.liquid-robotics.com/wave-glider/how-it-works/
7. Armed with drones, aid workers seek faster response to earthquakes, floods. Reuters [Internet]. 2016 May 16 [cited 2023 May 14]; Available from: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-humanitarian-summit-nepal-drones-idUSKCN0Y7003