Max Messinger, a biology graduate student at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and a group of scientists are using tiny robots to see Earth's landscape like never before.
“What we use [the drones] for specifically is to look at forest ecology, so we look at the way forests function,” explained Messinger.
The researchers say that the drones can sail over different regions and take hundreds of images from various vantage points. Within minutes, they can capture large areas or zoom in on an individual tree.
“The biggest thing that we can get from the drone is a higher level of detail,” said Messinger.
Once the drones capture the images, scientists use the pictures to build 3-D models that can be studied in the lab. For example, the images were able to help scientists build a model of a tree plot within a forest in North Carolina.
“In it, you can actually see individual tree canopies,” explained Messinger
Recently, Messinger and his team launched the drones into a rainforest in Belize. This is one of the most difficult terrains to study.
“We can get higher resolution imagery that can allow us to do things like identify what species are there,” explained Messinger.
Unlike traditional satellites or aircraft, the drones are relatively inexpensive, running about $2,000 each. They also don't need a human operator. They use GPS data, compass coordinates and onboard stabilization to navigate.
“It just allows us to do things that weren’t reasonable before,” Messinger explained.
One of Messinger’s drones relies on eight small propeller units and is capable of flying at 15 mph for up to 20 minutes. Another uses an electric motor and propeller to fly up to 50 mph for over an hour.