Coddington, Hicks & Danforth

Could drones help in the fight to reduce air pollution?

It’s easy to think of drones in the sense of what they can add to modern life. For recreational purposes, they offer a unique aviation experience that just about anyone can enjoy. As a means of utility, drones can gather aerial imagery and data from hard-to-reach vantage points. Even for consumers, the prospect of drones delivering purchased goods is becoming an increasingly tangible reality. But what if drones could also remove the smog and pollution that looms over some of California’s larger cities?

Drones are an exciting technology and they’ve already proven useful on several different fronts. With a rise in these unmanned aerial vehicles being used for public good—e.g. tracking wildfires and other disasters—what are their prospects for helping to clean up California’s environmental ills? A look at what drones are doing here and abroad could offer a glimpse into the future.

Sniffing out the problem

In Katowice, Poland, drones are already being to put to use as a way to detect pollution. A city with a substantial mining industry, Katowice offers an airspace that’s uniquely fit to test and refine this technology. Polish authorities are using drones equipped with sensors that can evaluate the air’s chemical makeup onboard, and in turn fining the offenders who are releasing contaminates.

While Poland is in the midst of its own pollution problem, these “sniffing” drones could feasibly be just as useful in cities like Los Angeles where smog is an egregious issue. The development of this technology will be interesting to watch, as it could play a role in the evolution of both emissions and aviation regulations.

A decrease in greenhouse gas emissions

When companies like Amazon and UPS began exploring the use of drones as delivery systems, there was a feeling that commerce as we know it could change dramatically. While that may end up proving true, drone delivery could also offer environmental benefits, namely a reduction in greenhouse gasses.

A recent study by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory concluded that using drones to deliver packages could cut down on carbon emissions. While drones are not completely harmless in terms of energy use, they’re a far cry from diesel delivery trucks, and the study noted that California in particular could see some stark differences:

  • On average, a truck delivery of a package leads to roughly 1 kg of greenhouse gas emissions.
  • In California, a drone delivery of that same package would create about 0.42 kg of greenhouse gas emissions.

For the Golden State, that would mean a 54 percent reduction in emitted greenhouse gasses. The technology and infrastructure are a work in progress for drone delivery, but there are promising signs that it could be a more environmentally-friendly option.

As the proliferation of drones in the U.S. continues, it will be interesting to see how their range of uses expands. With issues of the environment increasingly at the forefront of public discourse, drones may end up being called upon more and more as a greener option.

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