Drones and the future of conservation

The drone wars have begun and battle lines are drawn. Privacy stands on one side and possibilities on the other. It hardly seems like a fair fight. The possibilities are endless, as we’re learning day by day, and the best privacy can do is reach a compromise.

Drones are quickly swooping into the commercial sector, from helping property owners sell homes to delivering pizza. Amazon caused a buzz on 60 minutes with their demo of Amazon Prime Air, an urban delivery system capable of dropping packages right to your doorstep in half an hour.  The Octocopter drone is far from urban reality, but Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, believes it’s only a matter of time.

Last month, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced six test sites for commercial drone use. Over the next few months the FAA hopes to draft rules and regulations needed to safely use drones and protect people’s privacy. Meanwhile, there are some states that have already banned private and law-enforcement drone use.

But drones are riding a global wave, and it’s only getting bigger. We’re coming to understand that drones aren’t just tools of destruction, as portrayed by the military, but simply tools. Their utility is only limited by the human imagination.

For instance, have you heard of drones being used to combat crimes against wildlife in Nepal? Or plan orangutan rescue operations in Indonesia? Or use thermal imaging cameras to identify poachers in Kenya?

Just like the commercial sector, conservationists are discovering the possibilities with drones and are using them to preserve nature and protect wildlife.

Drones and Conservation

Drones and conservation are a fresh match. Until recently, drones had been too expensive for NGOs and researchers to afford. Besides, someone had to take the leap to show others the way.

Conservation Drones was started by professors Lian Pin Koh and Serge Wich. Their research interests in conservation and mammals brought them together in 2011. Their imagination and boyish curiosity is what led to Conservation Drones.

Koh and Wich realized that commercial drones were not an option for the average research budget. Drones needed to be cheaper, with the type of accessories that benefited researchers, like high definition cameras.

After a successful demo flight in North Sumatra, Indonesia, Koh and Wich were overwhelmed by the response from fellow researchers. Since then, Conservation Drones have taken flight all over the world. There are other organizations like Research Drones, and individuals who are stepping up to use drones for conservation in all kinds of creative ways.

In Nepal, drones are being used by the WWF and the Nepal army to protect the greater one-horned rhinoceros from poachers. In Belize, the fisheries department and Wildlife Conservation Society are considering using drones to monitor illegal fishing activities off the coast. In Kenya, drones – and chilli powder – are being used to scare away elephants from areas with known poaching activity.

In Indonesia, the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) is using drones in ways that would make a CIA operative’s job sound mundane.

The rainforests of Sumatra is a species rich ecosystem and is home to many critically endangered animals, including tigers, rhinos, elephants and orangutans. Parts of the forest are covered by peat swamp, which are carbon rich storage vaults. Globally, peatlands store as much as 500 billion metric tons of carbon, twice as much as trees all around the world. Yet they only cover three per cent of the globe.

But the rainforest and wildlife are under threat from logging (legal and illegal), poaching and forest fires. Palm oil plantations are a big source of income for the Sumatran economy. Palm trees are cheap and easy to grow in temperate climate, and palm oil is ubiquitous in all household products, from soap to sweets. To make room for more plantations, the natural forest and its inhabitants are sacrificed. The government, farm owners and environmentalists have been battling each other over the rights and responsibilities for the ecosystem for years.

It was in North Sumatra where Koh and Wich first tested their prototype drone. And it’s here where we find Graham Usher, a Landscape Protection Specialist with the SOCP, and drone specialist. Usher is using drones to save orangutans, fight crime and preserve the carbon rich peat swamp.

Fighting Crime and Saving Orangutans

Graham flies drones over the forest to spot illegal hunting and logging camps, which are fairly common in North Sumatra. “It is often possible to spot tarpaulins of logging/hunting camps, which allows pin pointing of problems for ground level action,” says Usher. “Isolated blue tarpaulins in the forest can only be four things: illegal logging, illegal hunters, researchers/survey teams, or possibly illegal miners. We usually know if there are researchers or survey teams around.”

Illegal activities spotted by drones are reported to Indonesian law enforcement authorities. In this manner, drones are helping conservation in more than one way. The local authorities don’t have the resources to monitor the forest like Graham and his team do.

Drone surveillance is also used to find fragmented areas of the forest where animals, like orangutans, may be trapped and in need of rescuing. Orangutans typically stay in the safety of tree canopies, rarely stepping down onto the forest floor. Large swaths of land cleared for logging and plantations can leave them trapped in an area, isolated from food and companions.

Low flights with high resolution cameras make it possible to identify individual trees and orangutan nests separated from other parts of the forest.

It also helps keep track of orangutan numbers and preservation efforts. Traditionally, this kind of bookkeeping would require sending a survey team by foot to count orangutan nests. This method is labour intensive, time consuming and potentially dangerous, especially in swampy areas.

Without drones, Graham and his team would have to rely on satellite imagery. While these are free, the images are usually unclear and don’t have the resolution needed for the type of work SOCP is doing. There is also a delay from when the images are taken, processed, and available to the public. Drones provide almost real-time surveillance, which is necessary to catch illegal loggers and poachers. It also makes it possible to organize rescue operations for orangutans that have been isolated by fire or deforestation. Waiting for satellite imagery to come through could mean life or death for an orangutan.

The Future of Drones and Conservation

“As the technology develops, particularly in imaging systems, it is possible that we could fly forests at night with thermal imaging cameras and count individual animals in their nests,” says Usher. “Another possibility is using the drones mounted with radio receivers to locate the signals from animals that have radio chips. Again this would be much more effective than having to do ground level surveys. For large, wide ranging species, such as elephants and tigers, it would be a much cheaper option than GPS-type radiotracking, which is expensive to operate.”

New technology is always embraced for a few key reasons: they make things easier, cheaper, faster or any combination of the three. That’s what drones are doing for the SOCP, and other conservationists around the world.

Marc Goss works for the Mara Elephant Project in Kenya. He started using drones to find poachers hunting for precious elephant ivory. He realized, however, that they’re more effective in scaring elephants away from poachers. “I’m assuming that they think it’s a swarm of bees,” says Goss.

Goss uses Google Earth and GPS mounted collars to track the position of elephants and see if they’re straying near zones with known poaching activity. In the future, he plans on using drones with a paintball shooting mechanism filled with capsaicin, a natural irritant found in chilli peppers, to deter elephants.

“Drones are basically the future of conservation; a drone can do what 50 rangers can do,” says James Hardy, manager of the Mara North Conservancy. “It’s going to reach a point where drones are on the forefront of poaching. At night time we could use it to pick up heat signatures of poachers, maybe a dead elephant if we’re quick enough.”

Usher agrees on the future of drones, and is excited at the prospect of developing drone technology.“I do believe that we will be using drones more and more in the coming years, particularly as costs come down, such as for autopilots which are already much better and cheaper than a few years ago, and the technologies improve. Perhaps the biggest leaps to come are in the imaging and data collection technologies, such as the image capture systems and radiotelemetry tracking of wildlife.”


As drones continue to gain popularity, in the commercial sector and elsewhere, the issue of privacy still remains to be tackled. Currently, there are no international guidelines for drone use and each country has vastly different and changing stances on the subject. Drone use will only grow; there’s no stopping this wave. But privacy hasn’t had its final say.

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