Navigation assistance, air quality measurements and security risks – what to prepare for when city skies become populated by drones?

Handy couriers, an all-seeing surveillance system or something in between? Researchers share their views on using drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, in research, including their greatest risks.

What opportunities do drones bring to life in the city?

The prospects related to unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones, range from parcel deliveries to self-guided smart devices that can, for example, search for criminal suspects. In common predictions, drones are considered helpful in controlling traffic, public events and riots.

“Drone technology provides new ways of monitoring, mapping and navigating in the urban environment for improving the safety, security and efficiency of cities and the wellbeing of citizens. Together with 5G, AI and modular sensing systems, it is possible to gather high quality and real-time data about cities,” says Sasu Tarkoma, professor of computer science at the University of Helsinki.

Another future possibility is to employ unmanned aircraft in the analysis of air quality in cities. Such use has been planned, for example, in the MegaSense project.

“We are currently investigating whether drones can be installed with air quality measuring equipment. Traditionally, air quality sensors are immobile or installed in cars, but drones could cover areas in a more versatile manner,” explains Petri Pellikka, professor of geoinformatics at the University of Helsinki. Pellikka’s research group, the Earth Change Observation Laboratory, is focused on environmental remote sensing, also with drones.

What kind of security risks are associated with drones in cities?

The most conventional of the security risks associated with unmanned aircraft is the device falling on someone from the city sky. A person filming with a drone may also be invading the privacy of a neighbour, or fly the device into otherwise restricted or dangerous airspace.

More serious potential threats include terrorist acts carried out with drones and foreign military reconnaissance. Unmanned aerial vehicles can also be used for the ‘Big Brotherly’ surveillance of citizens, such as China’s use of drones disguised as doves (link in Finnish only).

In Finland, anyone is allowed to fly drones with relatively little restrictions, although no-fly zones do exist. The Finnish Transport Safety Agency Trafi is already providing drone owners with comprehensive guidelines for flying a drone. As unmanned aircraft are becoming increasingly common, the EU has also begun to draft legislation limiting drone flying.

“Taking safety, privacy and regulation into consideration is of utmost importance as drone technology keeps advancing,” Tarkoma notes.

How are drones already helping researchers?

With the help of unmanned aircraft, researchers are able to gather information from locations that could otherwise only be accessed through hard work, lots of money and intricate scheduling. In addition to traditional cameras, drones can be installed with a laser scanner or a hyperspectral camera, which are getting lighter every day.

Drones are able to get closer to the ground than airplanes, which makes their images more accurate than those collected by plane. Such information can be utilised in geology and ecology, as well as agriculture. For instance, a research group led by Professor of Physical Geography Miska Luoto is using drones to investigate the mosaic-like environment of the Arctic region and its changes.

Petri Pellikka’s group, on the other hand, intends to employ a drone to map the methane emissions of termite mounds at the Taita Research Station in Kenya.

“The chimneys in termite mounds can only be distinguished from high-resolution drone imagery. What’s more, vegetation in the vertical cliffs of the Taita Hills cannot be photographed or filmed from a plane, but drones are able to buzz next to a bluff and also shoot horizontally,” notes Pellikka.

Drones are suited for all types of mapping that otherwise requires a lot of legwork and manual labour, as well as complicated scheduling. Drones are flexible, since all they need is a controller and fair weather. Thanks to their affordability, drones are better suited to photographing small areas than airplanes, but if the area in question is dozens of square kilometres or larger, Pellikka finds planes still a better option.

Drones are also often the safest way to access dangerous places. If a researcher wishes to chart volcanic gas emissions, it is more sensible to send an unmanned aircraft rather than a human pilot. Human lives are precious, drones are not.

“In the world-wide Shanghai Ranking, the University of Helsinki was this year placed 20th in the field of remote sensing. Remote sensing carried out with drones could take us even higher,” says Pellikka.

Drones were also the topic of discussion in the Drones in Urban Environment event held on 25 September 2018. A recording of the event is available in the video below.