A Drone’s Eye View Of The World
How drones can outshine even the best photographers
HOW DO YOU EXPLORE THE BIGGEST CAVE IN THE WORLD?
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.
HOW DO YOU RESTORE A PARADISE?
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.
HOW DO YOU MONITOR A PSYCHOPATH?
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.
HOW DO YOU KEEP AN EYE ON THREE MILLION PEOPLE?
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.