Back in 2012, a primate biologist and a conservation ecologist took a drone with a camera attached to Sumatra. The experiment became the successful Conservation Drones.

Tropical biodiversity is in steep decline, largely down to widespread deforestation and poaching. If we’re to conserve what’s left, we need accurate and frequently updated data about the distribution and abundance of species, as well as threats to their habitats.

To get this kind of data, conservationists like us – a conservation ecologist and a primate biologist – have traditionally relied on ground surveys and/or satellite images. But these methods have several drawbacks. For example, ground surveys can be really expensive and time consuming (especially for researchers in developing countries), or the landscape might make them impossible. And in some cases, deforestation is taking place so fast that ground surveys simply cannot keep up.

High-resolution satellite images can help with some of these problems, but again there are issues. Cost can be a major barrier, the resolution of the images is often not right for monitoring wildlife, and there can be issues like persistent cloud cover (a feature of some areas in the humid tropics) which obscures the ground from satellite-borne cameras and sensors.

So back in 2012, we decided to take a prototype drone out to Sumatra and see what it could do. When we came back, we posted some of the footage on Youtube and the term Conservation Drones was coined. We could see the potential, so we went on to set up Conservation Drones to encourage and build capacity for their use.

The kind of drones we use are able to fly pre-programmed missions autonomously over a distance of around 100 km, getting high definition videos and high quality photographs of up to ~1-2 cm pixel resolution. These photos can be stitched together to produce near real-time geo-referenced land cover maps of surveyed areas. They’re already being used by conservation researchers and practitioners in various field sites across Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The kind of drone we’re talking about is simply a model aircraft fitted with an autopilot system, and this autopilot unit contains a tiny computer, a GPS, a compass, a barometric altimeter and a few other sensors. It can also carry a useful payload, such as a camera, and requires a software that allows the user to tell the drone where to go.

People are often surprised when they hear that these are the only four components that make a conservation drone, but they are even more surprised when they discover how affordable these components are. The fact is, a conservation drone doesn't cost very much more than a good laptop computer or a decent pair of binoculars.

Here are just a couple of examples of how we’re using drones for conservation:

Surveying orang-utan nests

Orang-utans are a great ape species found in parts of Southeast Asia, but they’re under growing threat of extinction because of deforestation. One of the main challenges to their protection is the difficulty of monitoring their populations. Traditional surveys require researchers to travel long distances in the rainforest on foot to count the number of orang-utan nests in the trees. Since 2012, we’ve been successfully using drones to count these nests from the air, greatly reducing the resources required. The picture above shows one of those nests.

Combating wildlife poaching

One of our first conservation drone projects began as a collaboration with the AREAS Programme of WWF International. Christy Williams, the AREAS Programme coordinator, once told us an incidence where after a gunshot was heard in a National Park Nepal, it took the park rangers nearly five hours to arrive at the crime scene, by when the perpetrators had already escaped with their loot. Christy thought that if they had a drone back then, they would have at least been able to deploy it and quickly narrow down the poaching location, and perhaps even track the poachers from the air as they were escaping. Since 2012, we have been developing conservation drones for use in Nepal and India for anti-poaching and deterrent purposes. In collaboration with WWF International, we have conducted multiple workshops to train local rangers and park protection personnel on the use of conservation drones. We have also been continuously improving our drones with useful feedback from these partners on the ground.

These are just two examples. We believe that there is great potential for the use of conservation drones for conservation research and applications in many parts of the world.

Dr Lian Pin Koh is Associate Professor and Chair of Applied Ecology and Conservation, Environment Institute, University of Adelaide. Dr. Serge Wich is Professor of Primate Biology, Research Centre in Evolutionary Anthropology and Palaeoecology, Liverpool John Moores University, UK.

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