Photo by Conservation Drones
Twenty years ago I had a tsetse fly-filled conversation with some hardened and battle-scarred rangers about how to count rhinos in the very thick Miombo woodlands of southern Tanzania. Over the droning of those persistent and painful flies, we talked of getting a hobbyists’ radio-controlled airplane and attaching an infrared video camera for night flights to pick up the heat signatures of rhinos. Only elephants would have a bigger glow, so identification would be simple. Lots of ground could be surveyed, dense, dangerous thickets could be avoided, and poachers’ fires could be easily located by the handful of rangers responsible for a vast protected area. But small, infrared video cameras were not yet readily available to non-military types – ditto satellite tracking and GPS – and the hand-held radio range of the planes of the day was rather limited, so the rangers continued to walk transects and gingerly pick their way through tangled thickets, the haunts of slumbering and cranky rhinos and well-armed poachers.
In those twenty years since talking with the rangers, rhino and elephant populations have been decimated―only a handful of northern white rhinos still live in the wild―and the demand and prices for black market rhino horn and ivory are skyrocketing. Will the recent advent of the cost-effective, versatile unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)―the drones of our dreams―turn the tide in the fight for rhinos and the planet? Just in the past two years cost-effective drones and high-quality imaging capabilities have become readily available to conservationists, activists, researchers, and park managers (the adventurous suburbanite can also pick one up at Barnes & Noble Books).
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.
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.
Sperm whale researchers in New Zealand are using drones to survey whales without bringing large research vessels in close. They can monitor pregnant females, count whales in pods, and they will attempt to zoom down and sample whale spouts for individual whale DNA. Waterproofing and catching a homebound drone by hand in big swells in a small chase boat remains a challenge. The Sea Shepard has been using drones to track the Japanese whaling fleet in the Southern Ocean and they believe the technology has increased their surveillance capacity considerably. Animal rights activists are using drones to have a look at operations suspect of inhumane treatment of farm animals and dogs. Not to be left behind by the latest technology, “squatchers” seeking the elusive cryptid hominid ‘Bigfoot’ are using drones with infrared capabilities to search for BIG heat signatures in the woods, but they will not tell you where.