Drones in conservation – some thoughts

Military drones 2005

The term drone is usually associated with unmanned planes used for military surveillance and aggressive activities. The latter is something we as conservationists, scientists, environmental managers and others would rather not be associated with. Surveillance is a term slightly associated with our own trade. We call it monitoring – but much of it is about the same thing. We want to know who is where, how many they are and what they are doing. Our purpose for monitoring the environment is to be able to understand a certain species, their interactions with other species or its immediate environment.

Quality information is necessary to make decisions to protect the environment, or to provide politicians with a basis for policy decisions.  A question which has surfaced is: Will drones make conservation and management of the environment more efficient and accurate?

In this posting I will take a brief look at some of the challenges and opportunities pertaining to the use of drones in conservation.

Reading about drones and considering it for conservation use I have become somewhat of an addict. I find myself looking at prospective planes very much the same way as I looked through catalogs with RC planes some 30 years ago. Back then the planes did not serve any purpose. And I never had the money to buy one either. And what is the point in driving a plane around just for fun?

Today my ambition is to press but one button and the plane does the rest of the job on its own. I would rather blame a crash on bad programming rather than explaining how I trimmed the rudder and what not – leading to an very likely crash.

One of the planes which look like they could be a good starting point is a plane fro DIYDRONES. Quadcopters is the newcomer which is basically a helicopter with four rotors. This makes the vehicle flexible with regards to maneuvering. The software running these small birds is becoming more flexible as the days and months go by. An open source project is the Arducopter software.

To get up to speed on the options out there I would suggest the following sites for further reading:

So in an initial article I would like to list up some issues which should be addressed with regards to drones in conservation.

National regulations will both guide and limit your use of drones. Particular care should be made when you operate in a country where you are a foreigner.

  • National remote control radio frequency regulations
  • Aerospace regulations (and coordination with tourism related manned flights)
  • Security regulations – governments tend to be sensitive towards equipment which might compromise military operations or areas

Pollution is an issue which concerns every person initiating activities in nature. Protected areas subject to the use of drones is no exception.

  • Drones will be missing in action. The ideal is to track them down. In case they are lost it is of importance what materials used. Wood is I guess better than hardened foam.
  • Some of the electrical components represent sources of heavy metal pollution.
  • Wildlife interference (birdstrikes, disturbance, pollution)

Methods development should be started outright. It is of key importance to be able to use current methods and also use this opportunity to agree on standards for storage and dissemination of data.

Data licensing is an issue when you collect data. Biologists are in particular good at keeping valuable observation data in the bottom of their drawer, just in case they get their act together and finally write that paper. Don’t go there. Put a license on your data and make it publicly available when relevant and possible. Remote sensor based data is no exception. The Landsat program has provided important data for many, many years. It is  my humble opinion that clear open licensing will be to the good of the environment.

Data availability with proper licensing is the best starting point for conservation and research.  At this point there are no central repositories where licensed aerial imagery can be stored with proper metadata. Too many times have I come over old imagery with no licensing information. Using such data could get you into trouble.

  • I am suggesting that aerial imagery is established using a standard based on agreements in the conservation community.

I would be more than happy to get comments on this article. Good ones will be credited and incorporated in the article.


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