The drones are coming to a field near you

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Amazon recently hit the headlines with the news that parcels could soon be delivered by drone. This was met with some ridicule, as many people realised that the drones, basically unmanned aerial vehicles, would probably be more valuable than the packages they were delivering and hence were likely to go ‘missing’.

Whether Amazon’s plans will take off (sorry!) remains to be seen. However, it is undeniable that drone technology will soon be a common part of modern life. This will inevitably raise concerns about privacy and the loss of jobs through humans being replaced, but it also brings some exciting environmental benefits.

Drones are likely to revolutionise the future of farming. Equipped with cameras and other sensors, they could survey crops and monitor for disease. They could also accurately spray pesticides or fertilisers onto plants, thus reducing the overall amounts required. This would be far better for the environment than the current blanket application.

Livestock too, could be inspected from the air, pinpointing their location and backing up regular checks in person by the farmer.

Meanwhile, conservationists are experimenting with drone technology in our region. In the Nene Washes, Cambridgeshire, the RSPB are using thermal imaging drones to count nests and mammals at night. This will help them to measure the breeding success of the birds there, as well as keep tabs on the presence of predators.

This is a task that is normally incredibly time consuming for staff members and volunteers. It is also virtually impossible for humans to carry out accurately. The RSPB is hopeful that in the future this type of technology will help them to monitor vulnerable species across the UK.

So drones may have a green future in farming and wildlife conservation, but I still have some doubts. The countryside should, as much as possible, be a haven from technology. Of course, farmers once just used horses and now we are all used to tractors and combines – both of which are noisier and bigger than drones. Yet tractors move in a predictable way, so you can avoid them on your peaceful walk should you wish. Nor are they filming your romantic picnic!

Regular drones zipping around would undoubtedly ruin the tranquillity of our natural places. There could be safety issues too – a horse rider would be endangered if a drone merrily zoomed by, spraying the crops next to a nervous horse. A farmer would halt their tractor, to allow an upset horse to pass – a drone would be oblivious.

Of course, new opportunities often bring challenges to be overcome. It could be that thermal and night vision technologies mean that drones could just operate in darkness (as in the RSPB example) to address these concerns. However, that would not necessarily be practicable for all agricultural use.

Technology is so often a bitter-sweet solution, both improving and damaging the environment that we treasure. It is not the technology itself that is the determining factor in whether something is overall good or bad for our planet, but rather how we choose to use it.   

First published in the EDP and EADT.

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Want a green pet?

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What’s cute, fluffy and bad for the environment? The answer is lurking in your home, very possibly asleep at the end of your bed.  Whether you own a cat or dog, you may be surprised at their impact on the planet.

According to a book, amusingly called ‘Time to Eat the Dog’ a medium sized dog has the same ecological footprint as a Toyota Land Cruiser and even your little kitty equates to a Volkswagen Golf in carbon terms. This is because they are meat eaters and producing meat takes a lot of land area and energy.

Not only that, but fouling by dogs is an environmental issue that can ruin parks, pavements, footpaths and beaches for other people. The UK dog population produces a scary 1,000 tonnes of excrement each day. If this isn’t dealt with responsibly by owners, it creates ‘no go’ areas for families and walkers. It is dangerous too, because of the risk of toxocariasis from roundworm in the faeces.

Meanwhile, cats aren’t so innocent either. Their predatory ways lead to the untimely deaths of birds, small mammals and amphibians. The Mammal Society estimates that the UK’s cats catch up to 275 million prey items a year, of which 55 million are birds. Those are just the ones they bring home, so the actual numbers could be much higher.

Hang on a minute though. It’s sounding very negative. As an animal lover, I’d like to mount a defence case for our furry friends. Firstly, much of the meat that goes into pet food is the waste from the human food chain. If it didn’t end up in a can of Doggo it would be disposed of, so the massive carbon footprint is not truly representative.

What about all those killer-cats out there? Well, even the RSPB states that there is no scientific evidence that predation by cats in gardens affects bird populations. This is because cats tend to take weak or sickly birds.  

Pets bring subtle environmental and social advantages too, although these are harder to measure. A family pet helps children to learn about looking after things other than themselves, and that sense of responsibility is essential if they are to care about their world too. Of course, dogs need walking too, so you will end up outside, noticing the changing seasons, picking up scraps of litter and appreciating the world we live in.

A few simple changes can minimise the environmental impacts of your pet too. Obviously, dog mess should be disposed of responsibly. For your cat, a collar with a bell (and a quick release safety mechanism should the cat become snagged) can reduce predation of birds as well as other creatures. To reduce their use of carbon, simply choose foods made from rabbit and chicken, which have a smaller impact than those made from red meat or fish.

With a little thought, you can shrink your pet’s carbon pawprint while enjoying all the love and cuddles that they bring to our lives. Now you can’t say that about a Volkswagen Golf!

First published in the EDP and EADT.