Easy-to-fly drones allow conservationists to monitor everything from animal populations to climate change – and even restore fire-damaged forests and coral reefs.
Orangutan nests are tricky to count. They’re usually located in remote areas, and surveying them by foot can often involve hours of gruelling trekking. If you’re lucky enough to have a helicopter or plane to hand you can cover more ground in less time. But aerial surveys are expensive – often prohibitively so for a small team of researchers.
Serge Wich, a primatologist who focuses on great apes and conservation, thought there might be another way to carry out the work. He looked into drones, and soon began using them to photograph Orangutan nests from the air. “This was 2011,” he says. “There weren't as many drones on the market as there are now, and there wasn't a DJI or Parrot selling them for reasonable prices. So we found a do-it-yourself drones website and basically learned how to build them.”
The success of this experiment encouraged Wich and Lian Pin Koh, a conservation biologist, to found Conservation Drones, which aims to inspire conservationists to use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for biodiversity conservation purposes. In the eight years since they launched the initiative the cost of off-the-shelf drone systems has dropped considerably, to the point where they are now used for a wide range of environmental monitoring and restoration projects. They come in two main flavours: the quadcopter, which is what most people think of when they hear the word ‘drone’; and the fixed-wing, which tends to be more expensive but has higher cruising speeds and can fly for longer periods. Both can be used for aerial mapping, and customised with various sensors to collect data on everything from endangered species to pollution and deforestation.
Wind gauges, thermometers and humidity or pressure sensors, for instance, turn a drone into the perfect tool for gathering climate data. Aerial images and video can also be pieced together to form 3D maps and models that can help researchers to predict environmental changes such as rising sea levels or Arctic ice melt. Underwater drones, meanwhile, are able to capture data on ocean temperature, salinity, tidal currents and the health of coral reefs. In other words, if you want to know what’s happening in a certain area or ecosystem, a drone will probably give you some valuable insights.
One of the most obvious use-cases for drones is monitoring animal populations. They can be used to track migration patterns, assess herd sizes and more – and without putting people at risk of injury. But isn’t there a risk that they’ll cause a disturbance? “There’s a lot of discussion about the disturbance that drones cause to animals,” says Wich. “But we tend to forget that other methods can cause disturbance as well. If I walk into a bird colony, I’ll disturb them. If I walk in a forest to count primates, I’ll disturb them too.”
As well as counting primates, drones have been used to identify pregnant and malnourished killer whales off British Columbia, keep a watchful eye over the endangered Iberian lynx, and count grey seals off the New England and eastern Canadian coasts. The latter project was carried out by Duke University researchers, who used two fixed-wing senseFly eBee drones to generate maps of the seal colonies. WildTrack, a non-profit research organisation that has developed footprint identification technology for monitoring endangered species, also plans to work with senseFly to protect the black rhino, only 5,000 of which remain alive today. (The species has been killed for its horn, which is used in traditional medicine in the far east.)
Many modern drones are designed to be easy for anyone to fly. In the case of the eBee, you simply throw it into the air and it flies, captures images and lands itself. “It's not something that needs a master pilot or somebody with a great wealth of flying knowledge,” says Troy Hittle, general manager for North America at senseFly. “That’s what makes our product, in my opinion, the best: the usability of it.”
Monitoring the oceans
In Belize, drones are helping to identify fishing boats that are over their catch limits, fishing without permits, or in restricted waters. Meanwhile, drones called ocean gliders are monitoring the sea itself. They can travel thousands of miles using only the motion of the waves and solar power, and follow a pre-programmed path of travel waypoints. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has deployed four of the devices off the coast of Puerto Rico, which will measure ocean temperature, salinity levels, currents and more, and hopefully, help improve the accuracy of the NOAA’s hurricane forecast models.
Aside from monitoring the ocean, drones are also capable of cleaning up our waterways. Take WasteShark, which removes surface litter from harbours, marinas and canals and prevents it from going out to sea. Richard Hardiman, CEO of RanMarine Technology and the brains behind the device, describes it as small enough to fit into tight corners and spaces where trash predominantly collects, but big enough to make a difference. “Compared to larger vessels, the WasteShark can go out and collect waste for hours at a time far faster and more effectively,” he explains, “but more importantly to port and marina owners, at less cost than current practices.”
During the design process, the team behind WasteShark focused on making it easy to operate and repair. Their next goal is to enable it to capture water quality and health data that can be used by smart cities and ports. “Data and the ability to define what is happening in our waters, we see as the next big step to enable environmental best practice and the future,” says Hardiman.
Planting the seeds
Beneath the waves, drones are helping scientists to understand how coral reefs react to climate change and pollution. One drone called RangerBot can even detect coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish with 99% accuracy – and then eliminate them by injecting them with vinegar or bile salts, which are deadly to the invasive predator. The research team behind the drone has recently developed larval bots too, which can drop coral spawn directly into the reef for reseeding.
Reseeding is also at the heart of the DroneSeed initiative, which replants areas of fire-ravaged forest using drone technology. Another company called BioCarbon Engineering has created a tree-planting drone that uses a tiny canon to shoot biodegradable seed pots into the ground. It’s working with the Myanmar-based nonprofit Worldview International Foundation (WIF) to restore millions of hectares of mangrove forest, which provides protection from natural disasters such as cyclones and storms.
In future, new regulations should expand the scope of how, where and when drones can be used for environmental and conservation purposes. Better batteries will also enable even longer flight times for UAVs, and swarming technology should allow large numbers of drones to cooperate in new and novel ways. AI and machine learning will also enable drones to make more intelligent decisions, and generate deeper insights from the data and images they collect. All of which should make it even easier to count those Orangutan nests.
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