Drones Launch Wildlife Research to New Heights

drone launching

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, also called drones) can cover more ground and easily access hard-to-reach areas. (Photo credit: Sander van Andel/REX Shutterstock/Associated Press)

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—more familiarly known as drones—are quickly becoming a key piece of equipment for wildlife researchers. UAVs are safer, less costly, more efficient, and more precise than other, more traditional wildlife research methods.

According to a 2003 study published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin, between the years 1937 and 2000, light aircraft crashes were the number one cause of death for wildlife biologists in the field. During this time, 91 biologists and other scientists died while conducting fieldwork. Of these deaths, 60 occurred due to plane or helicopter crashes. More significantly, these fatal crashes took place while the aircraft were flying at the low-altitudes required to accurately track and observe wildlife.

Unlike some of the ones used by the military, drones used by wildlife biologists carry only a camera and sensors, not weapons. Digital photos—typically geotagged with the GPS coordinates of where they were taken—can provide a more accurate (and permanent) record of observations than those that rely on human eyes alone. Photos taken by the digital cameras also can be fed into image-recognition programs that could help improve population count accuracy.

While drones used by the United States Air Force can top $10,000,000 each, ready-to-fly UAVs used for wildlife research are more economically priced at a mere $1000-$2000, although the addition of cameras or other sensors does increase the cost. For example, a simple camera system starts at about $500.

Dr. Lian Pin Koh, an associate professor at the University of Adelaide, and Serge Wich, a professor at Liverpool John Moores University cofounded ConservationDrones.org in 2012. The goal of their non-profit organization is to “share knowledge of building and using low-cost unmanned aerial vehicles for conservation-related applications with conservation workers and researchers worldwide, especially those in developing countries.” Koh and Wich first met in early 2011, where they discussed the challenges related to wildlife conservation in Southeast Asia. It was at this meeting that they came up with the concept of using UAV’s for conservation project-related research. However, they quickly determined that commercially-available UAVs were far too expensive to be practical for use by conservation groups, particularly those in developing countries. So they set about to design their own low-cost UAVs.

In early 2012, Koh and Wich tested their prototype UAV (which cost less than $2000 to build) in North Sumatra, Indonesia. Over a four-day period, their prototype flew more than 30 missions and collected thousands of aerial images and many hours of video footage of the forests and wildlife that inhabited the region’s tropical rainforests. Following this successful test run, together they cofounded ConservationDrones.org as a way to encourage other wildlife conservationists to build and use their own UAVs in conservation research, with a particular emphasis on the potential UAVs had on research conducted in regions with few resources for conservation.

chimpanzee nests

Researchers have used drones to monitor chimpanzee populations in remote jungles. (Photo credit: Sander van Andel/REX Shutterstock/Associated Press)

In addition to providing a more affordable research option in developing countries, UAVs are also an important tool in conflict zone areas. Drones can safely fly in regions where it would otherwise be dangerous for people to travel due to potential conflicts with poachers or armed militias. Drones can also provide low-cost initial reconnaissance for potential project areas that would otherwise be too costly to get too due to the logistics, personnel, and equipment required to get to inaccessible areas.

While observation has long been an important part of wildlife research, a major downside is that watching wildlife up-close can change their behavior, and this is particularly true for marine animals. Research conducted by scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) focused on penguins and leopard seals in Antarctica showed that UAVs are less obtrusive and stressful to marine animals than boats. In their research, they noted that the UAVs were “so quiet in flight that we saw no response from the [seals] or penguins at altitudes of around 100 ft.” Another project conducted by the NOAA Southwest Fisheries Center noted that marine animals showed no reaction to UAVs flown as low as 30 feet above sea level.

Unmanned aerial vehicles are proving to be a major asset in a wildlife researcher’s toolset. Not only can they be low-cost, but UAVs can also provide reliable data while causing little to no impact on the species being observed. As UAV technology continues to improve, so too will the potential benefits to wildlife scientists in the field.

More to Explore
NOAA: Unmanned Aerial System Research
Orangutan Conservancy: Conservation Drone Project
Drones Take Off as Wildlife Conservation Tool
How Drones Are Emerging As Valuable Conservation Tool
Eye in the Sky: Drones Help Conserve Sumatran Orangutans and Other Wildlife
The One Use of Drones Everyone Can Agree on, Except for Poachers

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