Wildfires, drought, flash floods… the world seems caught in perpetual struggle as global weather systems shift and change. The result is not just loss of life and property, but also a trigger for disease, molds, and pests that can wipe out entire crops in 48-hours or less. Hence the need for remote sensing (aerial-imaging), a rapidly improving technology that uses special cameras to detect, among other things, oncoming devastation before it’s too late.
Currently, remote sensing uses three types of camera platforms: satellites, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), and manned aircraft. All have their strengths and weaknesses. Satellites are suitable for imaging large geographic areas but are limited by clouds and availability (every 1-16 days due to their orbits). UAS are good for covering small areas and producing high spatial resolution, but height and weight restrictions limit their abilities. Manned aircraft can be pricey, particularly when four-seat and six-seat single-engine airplanes, that consume approximately 70 liters of leaded aviation fuel per hour, are affixed with cameras that weigh only four kilograms. “These numbers are important,” says Jonathan T. Scott, a senior research fellow at the Circular Economy Research Center of the Ecole des Ponts Business School and a Circular Economy Alliance (CEA) project specialist, “because materials, molecules and equipment developed to create a less-wasteful and more profitable circular economy will never achieve their full potential if they’re introduced into systemic work practices and processes that are inherently wasteful.”
According to Chenghai Yang, a research agricultural engineer at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Aerial Application Technology Research Unit in College Station, Texas, aerialimaging is expensive, with estimates running somewhere between $500 and $3,000 per hour depending on the equipment used. Indeed, one of the most frequent complaints Yang hears from aerial applicators is the high cost to use their expensive agricultural aircraft for aerial-imaging. So, using the need to weed out waste and costs in agriculture as a starting point, CEA, in conjunction with Ecole des Ponts Business School, joined forces with the USDAARS to conduct tests that gauged the effectiveness of using light sport aircraft (LSA) as aerial-imaging platforms.
The tests took place from the 21 st to the 24th of June at the USDA-ARS Southern Plains Agricultural Research Center in College Station, Texas and involved attaching a two-camera normal color and near-infrared system to various LSA (which consume around 19 liters of petrol per hour) and flying a 30,000-acre imaging pattern. Flight times averaged about an hour (drones would need weeks to cover the same area because, by law, they must fly below 122 meters). Preliminary results showed that all three aircraft carried the imaging system successfully, flew over the predetermined flight line without incident, and efficiently collected the required images. Despite cloudy weather conditions, the images were mosaicked and provided seamless coverage of the imaging area. Economic and material input/output analysis (including GHG emissions) are now being analyzed to paint a broader picture of both the positives and negatives associated with using LSA in imaging work.
During the second phase of the project, CEA, Ecole des Ponts Business School and USDA will build on the results of the June tests by working to better detect forest fires before they become wildfires (prevention is a major component of the circular economy). In the USA, the Federal Aviation Administration is expected to authorize commercial use of LSA sometime in 2023, which would allow them to be used by the general public as alternative, affordable, and lesspolluting (i.e.: less wasteful), aerial-imaging work platforms. “This would be a turning point for aerial-imaging,” says Scott, who is also the author of ‘The Sustainable Business’, “because LSA are much less expensive than large aircraft both in terms of purchasing price and operating costs. For example, if the state of Florida replaced its current wildfire detection aircraft with LSA’s, the fuel savings alone would amount to over $1,000 per hour and emissions would be cut by over two-thirds.”
Prof. Alon Rozen, Dean of the Ecole des Ponts Business School, and Mr. Papakyriakou Director of Circular Economy Alliance, say that their team’s commitment to produce measurable results, combined with front-line projects like ‘Sustainable Aerial-Imaging’, can offer similar waste and cost outcomes associated with the circular economy in related crossover projects including damage assessment, water detection, forestry, security, search & rescue, archeology and more. “One of the goals we’ve set,“ says Rozen, “is for CEA, Ecole des Ponts Business School, and our partners to use this project, and others like it, as an on-going template to educate and empower business so they too can eliminate and prevent waste in their work and production processes, with accompanying increases in profits and job creation. To be sure, we’re setting the bar high, but as long as we continue to break barriers in the air and across the globe, we believe it’s possible.”