Another Use For Drones: Saving Rainforests?

Drones for rainforest monitoring

This post originally appeared on

[Editor’s Note: Max Messinger, Founder of Linn Aerospace and Research Fellow with Wake Forest University Center for Energy, Environment, and Sustainability, has been using drones to monitor the health of the Peruvian Amazon rainforests for the past few years.]

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAVs, otherwise known as drones, are aircraft piloted by remote control or programmed to follow a flight path using GPS as a guide. They can be as small as a book or as large as a commercial airliner. From toys to weapons, they are filling a range of niches, including research and conservation efforts.

So, drones provide some unique benefits compared to manned aviation. What we can do is fly very low. We can get a very close look at things happening on the ground. We can do that safely and at a much lower cost than a helicopter or a standard plane can do it.

And then we also use it to monitor deforestation – see what the impacts of the deforestation are, find new hotspots, and help respond to those deforestation events.

That’s Max Messinger, Founder of Linn Aerospace and Research Fellow with Wake Forest University Center for Energy, Environment, and Sustainability. He has spent the past several years developing, building, and flying a variety of drones to monitor the health of the Peruvian Amazon rainforests.

For the conservation work, we’re developing a large, gasoline-powered plane with a 10-foot wingspan that will be able to cover really, really vast areas. But the biggest driver in the area that we work in is gold mining. It’s these small mines, usually smaller than a football field, that are operated by a few individuals. So each mine in itself doesn’t have a huge impact, but we multiply that by thousands across an entire region.

They’re really hard to detect because they are independently operated and they’re scattered across a region. They’re not, sort of, conglomerated together into one big mine.

Tropical rainforests are known as the “lungs of the world” because they are key to global water and air circulation. Illegal mining destroys around 80,000 acres of rainforest a day. We don’t yet know how they will grow back, but we do know that it won’t happen in our lifetime.

The high-resolution imagery captured by the drones’ cameras are used, along with traditional satellite imagery.

Using the satellites, we can find where trees have disappeared, but we can’t see why they’ve disappeared. And so we then can use the drone to go investigate those deforestation spots and determine what caused those. Once we do that, we can turn the images we take into three-dimensional data that allow us to see the canopy structure, and they allow us to see the structure of what’s left behind after gold-mining which helps us understand what the long-term impacts of that mining are going to be.

The 3-D imagery gives us a lot of information that we wouldn’t have otherwise. We think of forests as a way to combat climate change. All forests store carbon; we know that. They hold carbon in their wood, and, when you cut down a forest, you release all that carbon in the form of CO2 into the atmosphere. That’s a big environmental impact – a global impact – so we can estimate the amount that was lost using the 3-D imagery.

The Peruvian government does not have the resources needed to shut down the mines, so what can we do with this data?

What we can do is develop a better understanding of where the next mining hotspot will be. And that, in a matter of six months or a year, will go from one small mine to hundreds or thousands of hectares of forest loss. If we can find those flashpoints of mining, then hopefully we can stop that before it grows out of control.

The FAA just released their final rules for drones that will go into effect in August. So, it’s an exciting time for us, and for a lot of people, to be able to expand our work here in the U.S., [and] start answering some of these same questions here. We’re interested in forested ecosystems in North Carolina, [like] Pilot Mountain. We’re interested in learning more about the deer population around there. So, it’s a great time to be in this field, and it’s only going to grow from here.


This Time Round, the theme music for SciWorks Radio, appears as a generous contribution by the band Storyman and courtesy of



Leave a Reply