As global commerce expands, developing countries with emerging economies become destinations for goods—and as global warming disrupts weather patterns, catastrophic events like tsunamis and floods become more impactful.

These are two of numerous use cases that show how environment and terrain themselves can present infrastructure challenges for getting people and goods to remote areas of the world. These use examples also present compelling cases for the deployment of unmanned automated vehicles (UAVs) that can map rugged or inaccessible terrain and identify “ways in” to isolated locations or pockets of civilization that are sealed off from general access for a variety of reasons.

“Our aim is to save and to protect lives, and to prevent suffering—and we understand that we have to route relief supplies to affected areas as quickly as possible,” said George Fenton, Chairman and President of the Humanitarian Logistics Association.  “It is the people on the ground in the affected zone who give us the information on what is needed. They use mobile technology to call out or they send text messages. From here, we send in assessment teams and we use satellite technology for communications. Our metric is to respond to any disaster anywhere within a 72-hour timeframe.”

Suffice it to say that UAVs with aerial observation and mapping capabilities can reduce the “last mile” challenges of getting goods and people to remote or disaster-impacted locations.

But for those in the UAV field, the environmental discovery possibilities of UAVs go far beyond visual observation.

In the Netherlands, university-sponsored projects are testing UAVs in scientific applications for detailed monitoring of the environment to support sustainable management of living space, including the generation of aerial photography, vegetation monitoring and thermal mapping with a resolution of several centimeters. Two UAV projects under way are the estimation of erosion volumes in gully systems in La Peyne, France; and the use of high resolution UAV images with a thermal camera that can map water seepage (which causes weak spots in dikes) under the dikes along Dutch rivers.

In agriculture and in general environmental observation, UAVs equipped with multispectral cameras observe many different wavelengths of light and radiation. This can be used to identify certain substances or characteristics of a geographic area, since each substance emits its own unique wavelength that can’t be observed by the human eye, but can be picked up with sensors. In agriculture, multispectral cameras are used to check the chlorophyll level in plants. They can even sense different chemicals to determine which fertilizers have been used.

In forest fire fighting and prevention, UAVs using multispectral cameras were employed by NASA during the extensive fires in California several years ago to spot fires that were still burning under ground, so crews could get to them before they became fire factors.

In oil and gas exploration, UAVs with multispectral imaging can detect leaks in gas lines and stress points in pipes that cannot be seen visually.

Regardless of application, UAVs with cameras and advanced sensing capabilities will transform the future for surveyors, industry and academic and research institutions.
“There will be tens of thousands of them in airspace doing engineering inspection surveys and Amazon-style deliveries,” said Tero Heinonen, founder of Finland-based Sharper Shape, which develops UAV solutions. "The name of our company - Sharper Shape - comes from the technical capability to re-create the environment in a digital form," said Heinonen. “We create a model that is sharper than the reality."