Drones provide unique perspective on sustainable aeronautics

Tuesday, June 6, 2023
by Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Aeronautics

Dr. Derek T. Robinson has a unique vision for the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Aeronautics, that comes, in part, through the lens of a camera mounted high above the ground on one of his drones.

It’s a vision that captures the complexity of the aviation industry today and understands why remaking it for the 21st century requires a diverse team of experts that includes not only engineers, flight instructors, business advisors and a host of lab technicians but someone like him — a geographer.  A unique perspective, that observes the big picture as a compilation of the spatial composition and configuration of very fine details.

It is, after all, as an associate professor in Waterloo’s Geography and Environmental Management Department since 2012 that he’s refined his use of drones — remotely piloted aircraft — to collect high-resolution data about natural systems to help people make decisions about land use for farming, residential developments and even watersheds, as well as shedding light on the carbon cycle. As one of WISA’s associate directors, he’s using the same technology to inform vital decisions about the aviation sector in Canada and around the world.

“What is unique about our lab is our spatial and interdisciplinary approach to answering scientific questions,” he explains. “We have students who work in forestry, modeling, spatial statistics, computer programming, game engines and other individuals who conduct social surveys and work with people. Through this breadth we collaborate with municipalities, conservation authorities, industry, provincial and federal government, among many others, to ensure that our work impacts society as well as advances science.”

Now, Robinson and his drones are working with WISA through a variety of groundbreaking research projects.

“We are aiming to increase the sustainability of the natural systems in and around the (Region of Waterloo International) Airport so that they are able to store more carbon, reduce runoff and improve water quality while maintaining current standards for aircraft safety,” he explains.

“The novel tools we use to understand how these natural systems vary spatially also allow us to generate models of infrastructure. Along with other faculty and students at the University of Waterloo like Drs. Kapsis, Guglielmi, and Notomista, I’m hoping we can demonstrate how we can incorporate solar-power generation on site and use drones for infrastructure and aircraft inspection which will collectively decrease the consumption of non-renewable energies and increase the safety and efficiency of airport operations.”

“We need to tackle the issues of sustainability from a variety of different perspectives that include the site and situation of airport facilities and their management effects on carbon storage, water runoff and quality, and power generation from natural sources such as solar. While the contributions of the individual components associated with airport operations are minor relative to the consumption of fossil fuel through air travel, these aspects affect the local environment and provide a critical cue for humans to consider their environment and the sustainability of their actions when making decisions.”

Looking ahead, Robinson is convinced drones have an even greater role to play in WISA and the future of aviation. For instance, the need for very small equipment in drones could impact the production and miniaturization of equipment on piloted aircraft. That could be game-changing in the design and development of piloted aircraft, he says, because “with a reduction in weight and volume in piloted aircraft we can increase the efficiency of flight by reducing aircraft size or increasing the load of people or goods we wish to carry, which can reduce our energy consumption.”

Meanwhile, as long-distance drone flights become more common, drone operators will interact more with other parts of the aeronautics sector. “These flights, known as beyond visual line of sight, will be more regularly used to transport goods to remote areas, monitor our borders and environment and collect new types of data we have not even considered yet,” he says. “It is these applications that can advance science and industry with real-world impacts on our daily lives that I am most excited about.”

Despite what he’s already accomplished, and his ambitions for the future, Robinson knows he’s one player on a team he wants to see get even bigger. “My research is acting as a bridge between several academics and industry partners with the aerospace industry who would normally not interact with each other,” he says. “WISA has created an environment within which these types of connections can take place, and they are opening up new opportunities for local industries, student employment, and creating opportunities to advance the science associated with sustainability.”

All in all, Robinson’s drones have given him an elevated perspective.