Photo by Edward Louis Tendro Ramaharita
In several protected areas in Southeast Asia, the Indian Sub-continent, and Africa, drones are now being used to spot rhinos and elephants and track their movements. Drones also interact with elephants tagged with iPhone-like transponders that measure stress levels (which go up when being chased and hunted) and look for poachers at night. UAVs are being used to cruise beaches in Gabon to count leatherback turtle nests, chimpanzee nests, and elephants enjoying the sunset. They are counting orangutan nests in Borneo and deforestation fronts in Madagascar and Sumatra. If the drones turn out to be inexpensive, rugged, and user-friendly, they can greatly reduce the costs and time required for ground-truthing habitat maps, creating stitched ortho-rectified imagery maps linked to spatial databases and satellite imagery, monitoring species populations, logging, fires, and poaching activity, and giving a bit more of an edge to those trying to protect biodiversity in the last refuges of nature. Drones can allow rangers to react in real time to threats, and their new capabilities should act as a deterrent worthy of respect.
Image by Drone Mapper
A lot of technical attention is being focused on making drones that are tough and waterproof, fitted with mini-parachutes for recovery, and that run on fuel rather than expensive batteries with limited life. Conservation Drones, Research Drones, and the software creator Drone Mapper are some of the groups trying to bring technologically sophisticated, but affordable and field-tough, drones for everyday and every night use by local park rangers, as well as researchers. A few years ago using a drone would cost tens of thousands of dollars for a project. The immediate goal is to enable park and wildlife departments in developing countries with lean budgets to employ conservation drones for a few thousand dollars a year, at most.