How drone photography is helping conservationists to manage and monitor the natural world.
Amanda Breakwell | UNITED KINGDOM
Think of drones and you’ll probably associate them with the military or as a toy for gadget fans. But, in more recent times, drone photography has been turning the heads of nature conservationists.
When you consider the capabilities of the drone, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), it’s easy to see why conservationists are latching onto them in their droves. These unmanned aircraft (controlled by an onboard computer or a remote on the ground) are lightweight, low cost and fuel-less. Thanks to the unique design and construction, drones can capture high-resolution aerial images and high-definition film footage of the natural world. Crucially, drones are becoming increasingly sophisticated as technology advances. Many models can now fly for several hours, covering distances up to 100 km.
Accessing hard-to-reach locations
What makes drones excel from a conservation point of view is their ability to access protected or remote regions. This includes forests, jungle or mountains that could be too time-consuming, costly or dangerous to reach by foot or helicopter. One organisation, Conservationdrones.org, has already used drone photography to study orangutans deep in the hard-to-reach rainforest of Sumatra, revealing population numbers, the age of orangutan nests and what vegetation nests were made from. It’s the precise and detailed nature of data like this that makes drones such a game-changer in conservation.
The ease at which drones can manoeuvre is remarkable. They can fly at altitudes of around 200 metres and easily cut through cloud cover. This gives drones the power to capture data from a wide range of terrains, including icebergs, rainforests, wetlands and oceans.
Drones also earn their place in monitoring or tracking wildlife populations. UAVs with signal equipment can keep a beady eye on animals or birds fitted with radio collars or tags. This can relay vital information about habitats, changing populations, behaviour and migration patterns. This information is much easier, cost viable and more effective to obtain than human monitoring. Seabird populations, as well as marine mammals and shark surveillance in Australia, have already been monitored using drone photography and footage, as have green turtles in Indonesia and seals in Canada.
Conservation efforts aim to monitor habitats causing minimal disturbance to plant or animal species. The beauty of using drones compared to humans or helicopters is that drones are the least intrusive option.
Increasingly, conservationists are relying on drones using thermal-imaging to detect and deter poachers or wildlife traffickers. These poachers or traffickers may be responsible for causing wildlife populations to plummet in some areas. Drones are monitoring elephant and rhino poachers at a reserve in Kenya, for example. Whilst in Belize, the Wildlife Conservation Society has used drones to assess illegal fishing near to a fragile reef area.
The danger is that many poachers carry weapons, especially in conflict zones. Drones are far safer to use to ensure compliance from poachers, rather than risk human life. Drone photography can also sniff out illegal loggers, who could cause harm to the environment.
Impact of climate change
Scientists can document the effects of coastal erosion and flooding by comparing data collected by drones over time. They can also understand how plant and animal species adapt to climate change. Climate change is affecting the planet, and drones are doing their bit to help. Fitted with meteorological equipment, including wind gauges, thermometers and sensors, drones can gather climate change clues from across the globe. From an environmental standpoint, drones are even being used to monitor pollution levels and help in the preservation of scarce resources like water.
Drones have already been used to aid the restoration of an ancient peat bog in Switzerland, preserve water in Chad and map lava flows in Hawaii.
Monitoring plant life
Drones fitted with a non-visible spectrum camera can assess the health of vegetation. Images can help to understand a plant’s photosynthetic properties, map forests and reveal the characteristics of soil. They can also monitor plant species and their growth, as well as count tree numbers.
Trees in America inflicted with ash dieback were mapped and spotted using drones, where they were then treated. Creston Valley Wildlife Management also used drones to survey wetlands in Canada being threatened by an invasive flower species. A drone developed by BioCarbon Engineering even comes with a cannon that spits out germinated seeds on the ground, to assist in planting new trees.
With drone photography increasingly used in nature conservation, does this mean drones will eventually replace the work of conservation scientists? It’s unlikely. Data captured by drones still requires human analysis, and on its own is relatively useless without human interpretation. Humans also need to devise and implement conservation management strategies. But, increasingly, drones will have a part to play in this.
If you feel inspired to do your bit for conserving the planet, check out our article on minimising your footprint when on your travels.