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by Zachary Lehmann

Robotics and ecology are not two terms you see used together often; however in the last few years, advances in robotics technology and a dramatic drop in prices of hobby grade electronics have led to a revolution in the applied ecology field. Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) or Remotely Piloted Aircrafts (RPAs), more commonly referred to as drones, have been in the headlines a lot in recent years, most notably for their involvement in modern warfare. A recent spike in public interest in the hobby aviation industry has caused radios, helicopters, planes, and a myriad of other electronic devices to become more common place and easily accessible. As a result the cost for remote controlled flying machines has plummeted, and many ecologists and other traditionally low-tech industries have begun adopting the technology for their work.

The agricultural industry has used remote controlled planes fitted with infrared cameras to monitor the productivity of their crops for years. Multi-rotor UAS’s have been used to generate 3-dimensional models of remote areas and conduct vegetation surveys of small islands in Long Island Sound. UAS technology is even being used to track and help combat poaching in Africa and by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to monitor climate change in the arctic. is a community focused on promoting the use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) for environmental conservation. Their website features an impressive list of applications that the new UAS technology is already being used for.

The recent Ecological Society of America (ESA) article, Lightweight Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Will Revolutionize Spatial Ecology, describes exactly why the technology is so applicable to ecology:

“Ecologists require spatially explicit data to relate structure to function. UAVs offer ecologists new opportunities for scale-appropriate measurements of ecological phenomena.”

Ecology and UAS technologies – they seem like such a perfect fit! UAS technology is cheaper than traditional methods, easier to maintain, and more efficient.

So where’s the catch?

As a new, unprecedented technology with mass applications, regulations have not yet caught up to the technology and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is still deliberating UAS regulations. Up until about 2012 UAS’s weren’t very common outside of a few specialized clubs nor did they have mass market appeal. Now Google, Amazon, and Domino’s Pizza have unveiled plans to start delivering goods via UAS technologies. The FAA is under substantial pressure to update the outdated regulations as the UAS industry shows no sign of slowing down and is projected to reach $83 billion by 2025.

Current FAA regulations prohibit the use of UAS technology for commercial use. Their argument is that the airspace used by commercial drones is publically owned and therefore should not be used for profit. In the absence of better defined air spaces and new regulations, all commercial uses, even non-profit university programs, are being shut down since current regulations consider any flying contraption to be subject to FAA regulations (if interpreted literally, paper airplanes would fall under this jurisdiction). The current regulations impose severe fines running up to $10,000 for those found using UAS technology for commercial purposes.

There are a number of real issues to be addressed to ensure the safety and privacy of everyone. For example, should a certificate or commercial insurance be required to operate a UAS? Should new regulations stipulate that you can fly up to 500 feet (above) on any land you own? As they stand now, anyone can buy and fly these devices and without enforceable privacy regulations, a number of issues can come up.

The Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) is the leading model aircraft organization in the US. Currently, they have filed a petition for review of the FAA’s most recent interpretive rule claiming the FAA’s ruling contradicts language they included in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 by adding new rules and regulations regarding model aircraft

All these issues may explain why the international UAS industries are booming while UAS is lagging behind in the US. Europe has a robust UAS industry for both hobby grade fliers and professionals. There, commercial use of UAS technology is common and they’re being used for everything from scientific research, to the film industry, and even in real estate and government applications. Stateside we can only hope that the stakeholders and industry leaders can work with the FAA to solidify the regulations and allow commercial interests to start utilizing this game changing technology.

Wolfgang, Ben. Drone Industry Predicts Explosive Economic Boost. Washington Times. The Washington Times, 03 Dec. 2013.


 About the Author
Zak LehmannZak is one of Great Ecology’s Associate Ecologists and GIS specialists based in the New York area.  Zak has always had two passions in constant conflict ever since he was young. He was an outdoorsy kid that was obsessed with technology. And, anything with a motor or a circuit board would be dissected in the pursuit of knowledge. Unfortunately, putting it back together was never quite as successful as taking it apart. Zak originally went off to school for electrical engineering hoping to work in the robotics industry, but ended up transferring to a remote school in Maine to get his degree in wildlife conservation. Zak can’t wait for the regulations to get sorted out and take to the skies!