The innovative ways drones are being used to collect information that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to gather are as impressive as they are revolutionary. Drone technology has been used to enable high accuracy mapping, but it has also been used to study the health of whales without ever coming into physical contact with the creatures. These use cases illustrate what can happen once professionals in various fields get their hands on the technology and actively consider what can be done with it. Dr. Scot T. Martin has demonstrated what’s possible with drones on a whole different level though. As an environmental chemist focused on measuring emissions from both vegetation and human activities in various ecosystems, he has traveled all over the world to study the connection between emissions and climate. Thanks to a strong collaboration with Amazonas State University (UEA), he’s recently been able to deploy drones for this work in the Amazon Rainforest, deep in Brazil’s remote Amazonas state. There, he has been utilizing drone technology to measure the Amazon’s air by “sniffing” the environment using sensors specially designed and built by members of his lab. Doing so has provided his team with insight never before available around the ecosystem of the Rainforest. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this work, which is being supported by the Harvard Climate Change Solutions Fund, since it has and will provide a more meaningful understanding around how this environment is changing. The success Dr. Martin has had with the technology has compelled him to deploy a fleet of drones to collect air samples
at different heights. This information will not only provide scientists with more accurate information but could help create an early warning system for potentially disastrous changes to the Rainforest. Many of these insights will be discussed by Dr. Martin at the upcoming DJI AirWorks event, where the Gordon McKay Professor of Environmental Sciences and Engineering and Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University is set to present. To highlight his work and some of the things he’s set to talk through in detail at the event, we caught up with Dr. Martin for an interview. We discussed how his team is using drones right now, what kind of a difference doing so has made for his research, what he’s looking forward to discussing with participants at the AirWorks event and much more.
The first thing to understand is that we rarely have a camera on the drone. What we're trying to do is collect samples, so the camera is off the drone and is replaced by our own sampler box. We’ve adjusted the interface of the onboard DJI computer so that it can communicate better with the tablet to control the sampler box that we’ve mounted to the drone. Once we mount this electronic nose to the drone, we use it to fly it around and sniff the forest. This opens up numerous applications in the environment, and we can also use different types of sampler boxes. It’s actually led to a cottage industry of sorts, and there are groups around the world developing these boxes. The M600 from DJI has basically become the standard, which has allowed us to agree on a standard box design so we can swap sensors on and off to gather the type of info that we could previously only collect from a tower or airplane or tethered balloons. The flexibility of the drones has opened up a whole new set of possibilities for us.
In atmospheric sciences, our standard array of approaches is airplanes, tethered balloons, satellites and towers. Each of them has their place, but there are serious limitations associated with each of them. The data you can gather from a tower is great, but it’s also limiting. We’re trying to gather data that tells us what’s happening across the Rainforest, but if we’re only doing that in the areas where towers happen to be located, we have to make assumptions around how that applies to the rest of the forest. In an area like Amazonas, that's not a good assumption, because we’re dealing with terrain that goes up and down 100 meters, as well as areas that go from being water-logged with certain trees and certain ecosystems to dry land at the top of the hills. The types of trees and ecosystems that grow in those areas are much different. A tethered balloon is a nice idea but atmospheric sciences have basically given up on them because they are very difficult to control and very difficult to fly. Tethered balloons sound like a good idea, but they're actually very rarely used for a whole host of practical reasons.