Imperial College London Professor Invents Drones That Shoot Darts With Sensors Into Trees to Measure Climate Change and More

With its main campus in South Kensington, Imperial College London (ICL) has been focused on the pursuit of scientific excellence since it was established in 1907. It is ranked sixth in the world for programs in technology and engineering. ICL has some of the most advanced research labs among university institutions. One such lab is the Aerial Robotics Laboratory (ARL) run by Professor Mirko Kovac that designs drone based systems. In the summer of 2017, ICL opened a £1.25m drone testing facility called the Brahmal Vasudevan Aerial Robotics Lab to test all of the developments coming out of the ARL. As stated on the ARL website, “We focus on a range of applications that include search and rescue, in-situ repair with flying robots, environmental monitoring, and exploration of hazardous environments.”

In October of 2020, Professor Kovac, with several of his post doctoral students, published a paper on a novel method of using drones to deliver data sensors in clustered environments. Using an agile drone with a camera, an operator can easily navigate difficult terrain like a forest. When the pilot locates a tree to target through the drone’s camera, it aims a laser light at the target then fires a dart into the tree trunk. Another drone model has been designed to perch on the branch of a tree to either fire a dart or release a sensor. Once deployed, these sensors collect data on the environment that help researchers better understand how ecosystems are changing.

This data gives scientists vital information on the migration patterns of endemic and invasive species, light and humidity, and temperature changes. All factors that relate data on climate change. The sensors can also be used to monitor hydration levels to predict forest fires, as well as track the progression of such natural disasters. However, placing such sensors has never been an easy task. Traditional methods to tag forest ecosystems require a team to manually trek through a forest, climb trees, and place a sensor. Another method would be to free drop sensors from a manned aircraft over a forest. To manually place the sensors is time consuming. It also can often be dangerous to traverse dense forests and climb trees. Releasing sensors from a manned aircraft is extremely expensive and not always accurate.

With drones, as Professor Kovac points out, researchers can tag these environments quickly and safely. “Monitoring forest ecosystems can be difficult,” he said, “but our drones could deploy whole networks of sensors to boost the amount and precision of environmental and ecological data.” The system that Professor Kovac’s team designed weighs less than 2lbs and can be attached to an off the shelf or custom drone. The trigger deploys a dart that weighs around 0.06lbs. The drone can fire the dart from a distance of around 13ft with extreme accuracy. The unmanned system can deploy up to 17 darts before needing to be recharged.

To validate their dart shooting drone, Professor Kovac’s team ran extensive tests both in controlled and uncontrolled environments. The first round of testing was conducted within the Brahmal Vasudevan Aerial Robotics Lab to see how well the drone could shoot out the darts and if they would adhere to different surfaces. The drone fired darts into tree stumps and materials that could be found in city environments like buildings. While the initial test was to develop a drone dart system for forests, the team wanted to make sure it could also be used to develop monitoring systems for all environments. After testing in the lab, it was time to take the drone outside.

Professor Kovac and his team brought the drone to ICL’s Silwood Park Campus near the village of Sunninghill. Surrounding the campus is a dense band of forested area that was the perfect testing grounds for the drone system. The team was able to navigate the drone through the foliage and successfully fire darts into tree trunks at different heights. Between the trials conducted inside the lab and outdoors, more than 80 tests were completed to validate the precision of the drone dart system. As the paper on the compiled research states, “The proposed approach can be integrated in field operations and complement other robotic or manual sensor placement procedures. This would bring benefits for demanding industrial applications, scientific fieldwork, smart cities, and hazardous environments.”

The implications of such a system are vast. The drones could enable researchers to gather long term accurate data on climate change, hence providing the frameworks for reversing climate change damage. The team has proven that the drones can deliver the dart sensors with precision while being safe and cost efficient. While forests are the primary environment for which the drone system is intended, the trails performed showed that they will have broader applications. But, as Co-author Andre Farhina, of the Department of Aeronautics, pointed out there are still adjustments that need to be made. “There are plenty of challenges to be addressed before the drones can be regularly used in forests,” he said, “like achieving a careful balance between human input and automated tasks so that they can be used safely while remaining adaptable to unpredictable environments.” Luckily, ICL has the ideal equipment and labs available for researchers to perfect such drone systems.

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