Unmanned systems such as drones, are increasingly used in a variety of fields — from border patrol, to cinematography to just plain showing off your cool new toy with neighbors. Thanks to rapidly improving technology, durability and artificial intelligence, these unmanned systems also show significant promise in the field of ocean conservation. Scientists can save significant time and resources by collecting data, mapping species and monitoring huge areas of ocean impossible to reach by boat.

“Drones are fundamentally changing the way we monitor and manage our environment,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Institute Captain, Brian Taggart, told DroneLife. Taggart explained that unmanned systems can help scientists track the abundance and distribution of endangered species, patrol for illegal fishing and monitor areas that might be hard for boats to reach — such as shallow reefs.

Related: Oceans are dubbed the ‘ultimate sink’ for plastic waste

drone flying over ocean during sunset

WasteShark: the trash-eating ocean drone

RanMarine, a Dutch technology firm, has launched a floating drone called “WasteShark” in several countries. This remote-controlled or autonomously running drone collects floating trash at a rate of 130 pounds per trip, equaling 15 tons of waste every year. Think of it as a large, high-tech, trash-eating Roomba vacuum for the ocean’s surface. In addition to alleviating litter, the robot can also test water quality and remove oils, chemicals and harmful algae — all without threatening wildlife.

Video: See how WasteShark works

“WasteShark is cheaper, greener, more effective and less disruptive than other methods of dealing with marine litter,” Chief Commercial Officer of RanMarine, Oliver Cunningham, told the Daily Mail.

Aerial mapping and measuring

Drones are also used to collect data everywhere from the Caribbean to Antarctica. Conservation website Monga Bay reported that scientists in Antarctica are using drone imagery to measure and monitor leopard seal populations. This technology saves the researchers huge amounts of time, money and resources when compared to business as usual; physically capturing, sedating and then releasing each seal they measure. Weighing an average of 800 pounds each, this is a huge and costly endeavor that also disrupts the seal population.

The researchers conducted a study to compare the results of drone-measured seals versus those that they hand measure and found the results only varied by two to four percent.

“Because we took the time to develop this technique and verify that it’s doing what we think it’s doing, we can feel confident about gathering monitoring information in the future that will both help us understand ecosystem function and also give us better data to support conservation efforts,” lead scientist Douglas J. Krause told Monga Bay.

white drone in blue sky above clear ocean waters

Drones give students a new perspective  

Drones can also be used for educational purposes by giving scientists, researchers, students and the general public a gorgeous, birds-eye view of marine ecosystems and restoration projects that they otherwise could never see up-close. The Nature Conservancy used drones to teach students in Grenada about a coral reef restoration project and used the awe-inspiring robot technology to hover over the project infrastructure and convince the students of how cool ocean conservation can be.

Cracking down on drones in parks

With advancing technology and decreasing prices, it seems like everyone has a drone now, and many local and state governments are cracking down on their use in parks. All drones have been recently prohibited in California’s San Luis Obispo Coastal Park with authorities arguing that the unmanned systems disturb both wildlife and the public’s recreational experiences. For example, unskilled drone users have been cited for accidentally landing drones on rock islands inhabited by sunbathing seals. Others have scared birds from their nests, while others lose their drones and trample through fragile ecosystems to retrieve them. Drone use for scientific research is still allowed with a permit and trained pilot.

Related: Plastic pollution is causing reproductive problems for ocean wildlife

person holding drone controls at beach during sunset

Are drones taking jobs?

There are many examples of how drone technology improves ocean conservation, but how does this artificial technology impact local fishers, park rangers and other ocean-based livelihoods? The National Geographic Society recently awarded Moroccan company ATLAN a World Oceans Day Prize for their drone that can identify, recognize and alert authorities of illegal fishing activities across 435 miles — far more than rangers on a motor boat could ever accomplish.

This seems like a great achievement for protecting fish populations, especially when over 80 percent of the world’s fisheries are severely over fished. However, many marine protected areas — where fishing is prohibited — were established without consultation with subsistence and small-scale fishers. Despite their benefits to ecosystems, marine protected areas can often cause the displacement and criminalization of cultures and traditional ways of life without providing realistic alternatives.

“The idea that conservation requires emptying the land of its customary inhabitants fails to acknowledge that Indigenous Peoples and local communities are the most effective and efficient guardians,” Rights and Resources’s Lindsay Brigda wrote in their publication, Cornered by Protected Areas.

Many environmental organizations are now making a determined effort to consult with local communities and develop jobs in areas such as eco-tourism and conservation. With their extensive knowledge of navigated waters, fishers are often given jobs as park rangers– an opportunity to earn a living protecting the species they used to exploit.

Video: See how a fisher woman in Jamaica become a fisheries warden

Drones, like most artificial intelligence, are still years away from completely replacing the need for humans, but a concerted effort to protect already limited conservation jobs and budget for displaced people is paramount.

Images via Shutterstock