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Drones for the Advancement of Scientific Research

Drones for the Advancement of Scientific Research

Drones may now be popularly known for being hobbyist toys capturing breathtaking photos or racing through obstacles in drone races, but currently, it’s notably doing an exceptional job in scientific research. It’s the digital age, and our capabilities for understanding our planet are exponentially increasing, thanks to drones!

Where once scientists could only observe the earth from above by piloting aircraft or satellites, today they are refining their research without being actually up there. They only need to control the drones from their office with the use of a transmitter, thereby saving significant cost and effort. This means scientists can now focus more on precision, analysis, innovation, among others. Here are a few of the many contributions drones have offered to the field of scientific research.

How Drones Are Advancing Scientific Research

Advancing Scientific Research

Water quality

Ongoing research explores how to retrieve measurements from floating sensors, which will allow water quality monitoring. The drone here functions as an aerial water sampler that flies over the sensors, collecting data from each one, and returning to a base station. Without the drone, researchers would have to get in a boat and drive it to a boat ramp, spend all day collecting all the sensors, reset the sensors, and then analyze the data. The research aims to “enhance our understanding and effective management of freshwater resources.”

Forest trails

A team of Swiss researchers has taught drones how to recognize and follow forest trails all by themselves. The drone observes the environment through a pair of small cameras, similar to those in a smartphone. Instead of relying on sophisticated sensors, it uses powerful artificial-intelligence algorithms to interpret the images and recognize man-made trails. If a trail is visible, the software steers the drone in the corresponding direction. This research unlocks the application of drones for search and rescue of people lost in wilderness areas.

Disaster prediction

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published a study on environmental sensor networks that withstand river flooding and severe storms causing the floods, monitor and communicate over a river basin, predict flooding, and limit costs. The aim is to allow a feasible implementation of the system in a developing country. Currently, as an extension to this research, they are also exploring how drones may help respond to disasters.


Experts from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln are developing an unmanned aerial system for firefighting as forests around the world are seeing an increasing number of more intense wildfires. Fire breaks help restrict wildfire movement, but creating them is dangerous to firefighters who are directly in the line of the fire. Instead, a UAV can fly close to the fire and drop small capsules in precise locations. Those capsules self-ignite and start a small controlled burn. Firefighters do not have to get close at all; they just have to identify the location for the UAV.

Archeological sites

Drones are proving to be powerful new tools to archaeologists for documenting excavation, mapping landscapes, and identifying buried features. They also can be applied to monitor site destruction and looting in the present. Comparing satellite images with the lunar-like landscape of Fifa led anthropologist Morag M. Kersel to the revolutionary idea of using drones to gather data with higher resolution from areas of their own choosing. This research reinforces the power of drones in site monitoring and documentation as part of future protection strategies.


In recent years, drones have increasingly assisted with the photogrammetry technique known as structure from motion (SfM), where 2-D images are transformed into 3-D topographic surfaces. In a study, SfM techniques used drone imagery to produce high-resolution digital elevation models over the lower reaches of a glacier in Svalbard. The team then used the models to identify minor channels that were altering the roughness of the ice surface. The findings of this study have implications for understanding the energy balance of glaciers.


Scientists have started to fly drones to collect measurements of the atmosphere, cryosphere, ocean, and land surface. These aircraft collected atmospheric measurements and dropped small buoy systems into the sea to make observations of the upper ocean along the ice-water interface at the edge of the pack ice. This campaign was launched in 2013 to study the physics of the transition region between the frozen sea and open water—a crucial element of climate models in the Arctic. More campaigns are seen to take place in the future.

Transient events

Drones are ideal for mapping landscape responses that may occur for only short periods of time. Spence and Mengistu demonstrated the use of drones to identify an intermittent stream network in the St. Denis National Wildlife Area in Canada. Satellite imagery, with its relatively coarse resolution, could not always detect the narrow intermittent stream, which was well resolved in the drone’s imagery.


Ecologists have used remotely piloted aircraft to estimate the health of fragile polar mosses, to measure and predict the mass of leopard seals, and even to collect whale snot. The organization Polar Bears & Humans Project used drones to hover over glaciers in the arctic ocean, locating polar bears and monitoring their movements, while this research aimed to introduce ecologists and researchers alike to conservation drones.

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