With a problem as large in scope as global climate change, the solution may need to be pretty big. But how about something the size of a bird, like a drone?

Drones are compact but powerful tools. Already, we are seeing them complete tasks as diverse as aiding roof inspections, fighting fires, or capturing artistic perspectives. It is no wonder that many industries are investing in drone technology to make things faster, safer, cheaper, and greener.

Take the freight rail industry. With over 140,000 miles of track infrastructure, inspecting remote areas or hard-to-reach bridges is a challenge. More than simply challenging, it is costly. The introduction of drones to the rail industry has afforded freight carriers the ability to inspect thousands of miles of railroad track, bridges, and other infrastructure without sending personnel to the site. This saves time and money, and prevents a truck or railcar from making the trip out to inspect – reducing the emissions associated with routine maintenance. Drones can also be used when an accident occurs to quickly arrive on scene, survey damage, relay information about continued danger, and examine the root cause or track deficiency that may have given rise to the issue. When hazardous materials are on board, drones may be able to map the extent of the environmental harm to help improve cleanup efforts, or warn of explosion or fire hazards as personnel arrive on scene.

These same benefits apply across the board to other industries. Transportation departments often utilize drones to inspect roads, bridges, medians, and overpasses. Each inspection keeps one or more vehicles off the road and allows a drone to weave in and around a site more effectively than human inspectors can in person.

Unmanned aerial vehicles do more than inspect and photograph. While these are hugely important for reducing truck-rolls and keeping tailpipe emissions out of the equation, drones are doing far more for the greening of the planet.

Before moving away from aerial inspections and photographs altogether, that is one of the key strengths of drones in the fight against climate change. Companies like Flash Forest and Dendra Systems – among many others to be sure – are using drones to survey and map environments for restoration and reforestation efforts. Marrying software with hardware, these drone applications offer a powerhouse solution to climate change.

Once an environment is mapped and optimized, drones can then take flight loaded with nutrient-rich seed pods specially prepared for the specific environment. Doing the job of a thousand human tree planters, and in a fraction of the time, drones are able to fire seed pods into the ground to jumpstart small restoration projects or entire reforestation operations.

Some drawbacks are that human tree planters place seedlings in the ground, giving roots and leaves a head start on seeds alone. This may impact the percentage that take root and successfully mature into large carbon-sequestering beauties.

Therein lies the second drawback: that trees take time to mature. Global climate change issues are in the here and now. Planting trees will absorb and store carbon dioxide, but over a long time scale. In order to decrease the high atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases we have today, we would need enormous global lungs (our forests) working right away. Tree-planting efforts seek to do this, by building up the capacity our those lungs over time.

Fortunately, the use of drones can expedite this, by planting millions – and billions – of seed pods faster and cheaper than any human effort before in history. Investment in these tools will be critical in the fight against climate change. So too will be the regulatory climate for drone operation. Too heavy a hand, and drones will be hamstrung from doing their important work; too lenient, and public safety may be threatened by clouds of drones clashing in the skies.


Written by Benjamin Dierker, Director of Public Policy


The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.