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In a June 2013 TED Talk, ecologist Lian Pin Koh discussed the potential for conservation drones to be used to protect the world’s forests and wildlife. With a bird’s eye view of the landscape of any given area, drones are able to provide detailed, high-resolution images, which are particularly useful for monitoring the health of wildlife populations, and also in an effort to combat wildlife crime.
Conservation drones are model aircrafts comprised of an autopilot system containing a computer, GPS, various sensors, a payload, such as a video or photo camera, as well as a software instructing the drone where to go. All of these parts do not cost much more than a modern laptop computer.
Once the software is prepared with a map of what mission the drone will be taking, no further action is necessary to allow the drone to fly and monitor a given environment.
Before the era of drones, conservation ecologists surveyed the environment by walking through various landscapes on foot, carrying heavy equipment, and climbing trees and mountains with binoculars with the chance that they could see something. Clearly a time consuming and energy intensive process, traditional ecology methods greatly limited researchers and their ability to definitively investigate areas of interest.
Not only does the use of drones significantly reduce the cost to survey populations of animals, they also are able to capture and keep track of the habitats they live in, as well as monitor illegal activities such as deforestation and poaching.
There is no limit as to which animals can be evaluated with drone technology. A team of scientists led by Jan C. Habel at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) recently used drone technology to predict suitable microhabitats for the larvae of endangered butterfly species, where the information obtained was also able to be applied to the landscape level.
Habel and his team searched for egg deposition by the Common blue (Polyomatus Icarus) and the Adonis blue (Polyomatus belargus) butterflies, while obtaining information on all microhabitat structures of the area including vegetation height, virgin soil, and the distance between bushes.
A drone equipped with a high-resolution camera flew over the entire landscape, identifying microhabitats and egg depositions, where all of the information collected was later entered into a precise GPS program, enabling future predictions of potentially suitable microhabitats.
Using drones to detect microhabitat structures within the environment, the high-resolution aerial images produced have the potential to greatly expand the scope of ecological field research, and help make similar nature conservation measures increasingly effective and verifiable by other researchers.
A More Affordable Option
While drone technology may seem to be a costly alternative to the traditional methods of surveying landscapes, it is becoming an increasingly affordable option for researchers around the world. For example, in the United States, Conservation Drones, a non-profit organization, works with manufacturers to make drones a more affordable option for environmental groups and conservation scientists through encouraging increased production incentives.
Conservation Drones focuses on obtaining drones of enhanced endurance, that are simultaneously low-cost, autonomous and operator-friendly for any type of conservation mission. In addition to often being less costly and more efficient options for research and observation purposes, drones are also a safer for the subjects of interest.
Despite the documented results that have been achieved by the use of drones for conservation purposes, strict regulations set by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are making it especially difficult and time-consuming to obtain permission to use drones.
Operators are required to fill out a 20-page application, where each flight requires a licensed pilot and observer are required to use the device upon approval. While other countries around the world have looser permit requirements, the use of small drones in the United States and Canada has to date only been permitted for use by public universities and government entities.
References and Further Reading
A Drone's Eye View of Conservation
Drones for Butterfly Conservation
Drones Striking a High-tech Blow for Conservation and the Environment
Drones Take Off as Wildlife Conservation Tool