UAVs Emerging as Key Addition to Wildlife Conservation Research
With innovation driving forward the commercial UAV industry the range of applications now suited to the technology are rapidly expanding. One such area where UAVs are increasingly becoming a key research tool is environmental study: wildlife conservation in particular is becoming an increasingly advanced area of this field of UAV research.
Using UAVs for wildlife conservation offers a wealth of advantages. They can be used to detect animals or animal tracks, monitor protected areas and detect threats to animals such as human activity and damage to habitats. UAVs also bring with them a number of advantages in comparison to more traditional conservation methods. They can be more cost- and time-effective than traditional ground surveys. Many areas across the world where conservation research is being conducted are also largely inaccessible. UAVs provide a much easier way of retrieving data for conservation research and remove the need to take large amounts of equipment, people and supplies. UAVs are also useful for providing an initial overview of an area in order to determine whether further study needs to be undertaken. The technology can also be customized for a specific purpose or adapted to suit a particular region’s landscape, offering flexibility not associated with more traditional techniques. UAVs are also a cheaper, more efficient and safer alternative to using traditional manned aircraft and offer far greater flexibility than larger aircraft. In areas frequented by armed poachers, UAVs also offer protection to conservation researchers by enabling them to conduct their research from a distance. UAVs can also serve as a deterrent to poachers, with the presence of surveillance UAVs dissuading many poachers from entering an area altogether. UAVs are thus becoming a key tool for conducting animal abundance surveys and anti-poaching efforts.
UAVs have become an incredibly beneficial tool for conducting conservation work in developing countries. One organisation which stands at the forefront of UAV development within this field is ConservationDrones.org. Conservation Drones, founded by Lian Pin Koh and Serge Wich in 2012, seeks ‘to build capacity in the developing tropics to use UAVs for conservation and to raise public awareness of conservation challenges in those regions’. The duo focus upon adapting technology for conservation purposes, developing UAVs that are affordable and easy to build in order to use the technology where it is needed most. ConservationDrones.org now operates globally, with projects taking place across the USA, Asia and Europe.
The cost of utilizing UAVs has been cited by many as a stumbling block to their usage for a range of disciplines, however the Conservation Drones team are pioneering the use of cost-effective UAVs. The co-founders save money by designing and building their own UAVs. By using hobbyist materials, an affordable camera and cheap systems, the duo developed a prototype UAV for less than £650. Weighing in on the debate over whether UAVs are a cost-effective way of collecting rich data, Serge Wich has commented ‘Yes, I’m positive about that. Of course there is a set-up time and start-up time to develop the drone capacity for a local organisation but once they have it they can use it efficiently. NGOs in Sumatra for instance are now using them on a very regular basis for survey work and the same for mapping. Flying over with a drone is faster, more efficient and less costly than going on foot’.
Conservation Drones have also been working in a number of countries to reduce poaching activity. Serge Wich has noted the benefit of UAVs for this initiative, noting that ‘it is certainly a useful tool for that and drones are being deployed for that reason in Nepal and potentially some other regions on the future. In Belize, for instance, they are being used to detect illegal fishing boats and protect the marine areas. Using UAVs to help anti-poaching efforts is a promising area’. UAVs also provide the added benefit of being able to track poachers at night. UAVs fitted with thermal imaging cameras are able to monitor poaching activity in the dark when poachers are usually most active. As a consequence, UAVs undoubtedly hold the potential to advance the fight against poaching.
Some people have raised concerns about using UAVs for conservation purposes because they can disturb or even scare wildlife. Emeritus Professor David M. Bird of McGill University has shed greater light on this topic. ‘It’s being asked more and more. It’s one of the first things I get asked by wildlife biologists. “Is this thing going to scare the wildlife” and that’s one of the reasons I conducted a study with birds of prey and UAVs. In the very first study we did with geese we took photos and there was no scaring of the birds whatsoever. We used an electric-run fixed-winged machine. We did another study flying it above a tern colony which can contain several thousand birds. A PhD student flew the fixed-wing UAV above the colony at around 300-400 ft. the birds lifted off their nests the first time but less and less the second and third time and fourth time not at all. The UAV wasn’t exhibiting any threatening behaviour. It all depends on what you are doing and with what type of UAV’.
David Bird is Director of the Avian Science and Conservation Centre at McGill University. His research focusses upon the application of UAVs to wildlife management and research globally. Prof. Bird has noted the broad spectrum of uses for UAVs within conservation, incorporating ‘monitoring breeding, wintering and migrating populations of colonially nesting birds, spawning salmon and orang-utans, mapping breeding habitat of endangered species, tracking threatened caribou and polar bears in the far north, examining nest contents of raptorial birds breeding in inaccessible locations, and deterring poachers in Africa’. He has also commented upon the amazing flexibility of UAVs for conducting a range of conservation research and the possibilities afforded by advances in UAV technology. ‘I think the UAV of choice [when it comes to biodiversity] will be a rotary machine that can take off vertically and then go straight like a fixed-wing, in other words have folding wings on it. That’s going to be the ideal UAV for wildlife and biodiversity studies in the future. Because you can take off anywhere you want and land anywhere you want within reason. And it will be even better if it has pontoons on it so it can land on the water. There are people working on that right now, but it’s not yet perfected’.
The use of UAVs for conservation is becoming an increasingly promising field. As UAV technology continues to expand, so do the possibilities for conservation research. Moving forward, Conservation Drones are hoping to use their UAV to track animals. Serge Wich has highlighted the logistics of such work, commenting that ‘lots of animals from different species have VHF telemetry systems on them, meaning they have a very simple radio on them that emits signals. People usually go on the ground with large antennas to locate these animals by triangulation and it would be much easier if we could fly over these areas and locate them from the air. This is something we are trying to develop with several teams. For instance, orang-utans that we reintroduce get one of these tags and when they move away from the area where we released them they go further than we can walk and we can lose them. We don’t know where they are. Are they alive? Are they dead? Are they near a village? And if we could just fly over these areas and locate them, it would be very useful because every animal has a unique frequency so you could say “Oh Johnny is there”’. David Bird is also eager to see UAVs used for animal tracking, nothing that these machines can ‘be an antenna in the sky and pick up radio signals from animals telling you the animal is nearby. It is something we are hoping to do but we’re not quite there yet. We want to be able to not only pick signals up but send it back down to the ground. It is another holy grail we are working on’. Further down the line, the next challenge for advancing the role that UAVs can play to conservation is achieving automatic object detection. Automatic object detection is software that can automatically identify animals or poachers. This would enable tasks such as counting animals to become completely automated. Whilst still some way off, developing autonomous software for UAVs is a rapidly advancing field and is certainly a key area to watch within conservation research. To learn more about the benefits of utilizing UAVs for conservation and a range of other applications visit SkyTech 2015 UAV Conference & Exhibition, taking place 24th April at the Business Design Centre London.