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Drones for Science?

It seems like drones are everywhere, these days, and they're not always a welcome sight, says University of the Pacific engineering professor Elizabeth Basha in The Conversation. But it's possible the buzzing machines — unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — could be used to help scientists in the field.

"As our world becomes more filled with sensors — such as on roads and bridges, as well as machines — it will be important to ensure the increasingly distributed monitoring devices have power," Basha writes. "Here, drones can help. UAVs can provide wireless recharging to hard-to-access locations such as sensors monitoring bridges or floating sensors on lakes."

Such constant monitoring, uninterrupted by dead batteries or malfunctioning sensors, could provide the kind of data researchers need, whether to repair a bridge or figure out why a lake's population of algae is dying off.

Drones negate the need for a boat ride to the middle of a lake to collect sensors, for example. "This speeds up data processing, and improves data collection," Basha says. "If a sensor has failed in the time since the last visit, the scientist will discover this only when collecting data and will have lost all potential data, creating a hole in the data set and making it more difficult for the scientist to understand that environment. With a UAV, the scientist can relax in her office, send the UAV out for data on a daily basis, quickly identify failed sensors and have the UAV replace those sensors. The likelihood of gathering a good set of data that the scientist can use to learn more about our environment then increases."

And UAVs could themselves take measurements, Basha adds. For example, some researchers are already using the machines to map forest trails and measure crop heights — tasks that are much harder to accomplish for people.

However, despite their promise, it's unlikely we'll see UAVs flying for science until the FAA decides how to regulate them, Basha says. And there are also technical challenges, like how to fly them in bad weather.