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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