A Drone’s Eye View Of The World

How drones can out­shine even the best pho­tog­ra­phers

World of Knowledge (Australia) - - Contents -


Around 150 gi­gan­tic cathe­drals are hid­den un­der the ground in Viet­nam. Made en­tirely of stone, they form part of a eight-kilo­me­tre net­work of caves that un­til a few years ago no­body even knew ex­isted. “Son Doong is the big­gest cave on Earth, a hid­den world,” ex­plains Romeo Durscher from drone de­vel­op­ment com­pany DJI. But its size is also a curse: the only way in is via a tiny, me­trewide en­trance. To get in, Durscher and his team had to take their drone to bits and re­assem­ble it once in­side. Some parts of the cave sys­tem reach 200 me­tres in height and could swal­low a sky­scraper. In be­tween the cal­cite walls, a river carves its way through the cave – which means this subter­ranean world can only be en­tered dur­ing the dry sea­son. And it’s only by us­ing drones that re­searchers have even been able to take a closer look. Climbers could dam­age the frag­ile in­te­rior – in many places the ceil­ing has al­ready fallen in. “Fly­ing down here takes place at 40ºc tem­per­a­tures and 95% hu­mid­ity. Dust and the lack of GPS make things ex­tremely tricky,” says pho­tog­ra­pher Fer­di­nand Wolf. But all that ef­fort is worth it: the drone’s rov­ing cam­era cap­tures a world un­seen by any hu­man eyes.


The ships un­der Cap­tain James Cook’s com­mand glide gen­tly through the crys­tal clear wa­ters. In front of them, the tow­er­ing vol­ca­noes of Maui rise from the Pa­cific Ocean. On 26th Novem­ber 1778, the ex­plorer and his awestruck men be­come the first Euro­peans to clap eyes on this ma­jes­tic oa­sis. To­day, the Hawai­ian Is­lands have an ethe­real beauty that can only be cap­tured us­ing drones. The nine mil­lion peo­ple that fol­low in Cook’s foot­steps ev­ery year have turned the once-peace­ful group of is­lands into one of the big­gest traf­fic hubs in the Pa­cific. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of tourists book plane or he­li­copter tours to fly over Hawaii’s na­ture re­serves. “It’s no use pro­tect­ing all this wilder­ness on the ground if you don’t also pro­tect the air space over­head,” says Barry Stokes of lo­cal ac­tion group Cit­i­zens Against Noise. To prevent the thrum of en­gines from ru­in­ing the si­lence of this tiny trop­i­cal par­adise, au­thor­i­ties have in­tro­duced flight re­stric­tions. Now only drones are al­lowed to hover over the wa­ter’s sur­face. Why? Be­cause they are emis­sions-free, un­ob­tru­sive and – above all – quiet.


Un­pre­dictable and prone to ex­treme vi­o­lence, vol­ca­noes can be con­sid­ered a type of ge­o­log­i­cal psy­chopath. One ex­am­ple is 2,329-me­tre Mount Bromo (fore­ground) in East Java. But its vent, which was most re­cently ac­tive in April 2016, is just one of a much big­ger sys­tem with a cir­cum­fer­ence of nearly ten kilo­me­tres: the cliffs of the Teng­ger caldera in the back­ground of this pic­ture show the rem­nants of a gi­gan­tic erup­tion in an­cient times. To help pro­tect peo­ple in­side the dan­ger zone, like those vis­it­ing the Hindu tem­ple Pura Luhur Poten (far right), re­searchers around the world are now us­ing drones to mon­i­tor vol­ca­noes. Us­ing flight data they can cre­ate 3D mod­els of crater lakes or mea­sure the vol­ca­noes’ ac­tiv­ity. Fly­ing drones di­rectly through col­umns of smoke al­lows them to an­a­lyse the com­po­si­tion of gases therein. “Us­ing he­li­copters or aero­planes is use­less as the ther­mals are too strong and the high con­cen­tra­tion of ash can dam­age their en­gines,” ex­plains NASA sci­en­tist David Pieri. For this rea­son, drones with elec­tric mo­tors are par­tic­u­larly suited to these ex­pe­di­tions, though not al­ways suc­cess­fully. Vol­ca­nol­o­gists com­plain that they have one of the high­est loss rates of drones world­wide be­cause the heat sim­ply proves too much.


For the NYPD, it’s a near-spot­less record. Last year, ‘only’ 353 mur­ders, 1,438 rapes and 15,391 bur­glar­ies were recorded in New York, mak­ing it one of the safest cities in the world. Even Cen­tral Park in Man­hat­tan (left) no longer fea­tures on the list of crime hotspots. For law en­forcers, it’s clear why things have changed: the most so­phis­ti­cated sur­veil­lance sys­tem in the US, com­pris­ing tens of thou­sands of cam­eras, plays a big part in their suc­cess rate. “We in­tro­duced the tech­nol­ogy to counter the rise in ter­ror­ist at­tacks, but it’s also prov­ing it­self against con­ven­tional crimes,” ex­plains Paul Browne from the NYPD. An air­borne cam­era known as the Au­ton­o­mous Real-time Ground Ubiq­ui­tous Sur­veil­lance Imag­ing Sys­tem, or AR­GUS, can be mounted on a drone to watch over Man­hat­tan from a height of around three miles. The sys­tem is so pow­er­ful it can even tell what colour T-shirt you are wear­ing, while its zoom can pick out the type of phone some­one is car­ry­ing. Un­like a he­li­copter it can’t be seen from the ground. In­stead of a net­work of in­di­vid­ual cam­eras, the dronemounted lens de­liv­ers the big pic­ture 12 times per sec­ond – at an as­ton­ish­ing 1.8 gi­gapix­els.

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