Despite anxieties associated with drone use – most of which have to do with domestic surveillance and warfare – there are numerous positive uses for the technology. Whether it is keeping an eye on oil rigs, monitoring underground cables, spying on drug or human traffickers, or ecological surveillance, there are plenty of uses for unmanned aerial vehicles beyond warfare and invading privacy.
In Namibia, for example, where poaching remains a problem, drones may be the key to protecting the endangered rhino and elephants. Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism, along with the World Wildlife Fund and funding from Google, have partnered to invest in drones that can track rhino and elephant herds. Through the use of these drones, the researchers were able to follow herds and alert law enforcement in the event the animals were being targeted by poachers.
In field tests conducted in two national parks in November 2013, drones with 2-metre wingspans flew day and night missions to video black rhino herds and send live footage to poacher-tracking rangers on the ground. Smart radio tags attached to rhinos allowed the drones to home in on each herd’s current location. Crawford Allan, leader of the Wildlife Crime Technology Project at WWF, put it as follows:
We broke new ground using technologies that have never been integrated before to provide powerful wildlife protection.
The MET says it will now press ahead and deploy drones in areas of Namibia where rhinos and elephants roam. WWF estimates that illegal poaching in Africa nets criminals $10 billion each year – with some 22,000 elephants killed annually and 1000 rhinos killed last year in South Africa alone. Their efforts are also thinning out elephant and rhino populations and putting the entire ecosystem at risk.
Although the drone program should help prevent poaching in Namibia, the issue is widespread across Africa. It’s not clear whether a similar program will be rolled out elsewhere, but any success incurred in Namibia to stop poaching will set a precedent others are sure to follow. And, it should be noted, this country and the WWF are hardly alone in wanting to adapt UAV technology to the goal or ecological or species conservation.
In many ways, MET’s use of high-tech to protect wildlife echoes that of Technology For Nature (TfN), a joint venture of Microsoft Research in Cambridge, UK, University College London and the Zoological Society of London. Led by Lucas Joppa and Siamak Tavakoli at Microsoft, TfN is getting similar drone and animal-tagging projects off the ground in the Republic of the Congo, the Seychelles and Zambia.
And then there’s Conservation Drones, a non-profit organization co-founded by Serge Wich – a professor in primate biology at John Moores University. Made up of researchers and technologists, the group’s mandate is to spread drone use around the world for the sake of conservation. So far, they have worked with conservation groups and governments in Nepal, Indonesia, Gabon, and Greenland, and Wich hopes to visit more countries later this year.
According to Wich, the challenges to conservation go beyond simply monitoring endangered animals, which may be in too few number to accurately keep track of. There’s also the matter of the rough and vast terrain, which can be very difficult to physically cover. Drones are a big game changer in this game. By covering large areas in surveys, doing it repeatedly, and automating some of the analysis, aerial vehicles can track wildlife in a more comprehensive and efficient way.
Thanks to the growth of commercial aerial drones in recent years and the significant reduction in price, the technology is becoming much more affordable and user-friendly. The kits Conservation Drones uses cost no more than about $3,000, and the latest version has an open-source autopilot platform from California, along with a GPS tracker and altimeter. It’s then fitted with still cameras or video. As Wich himself put it:
The potential is huge to allow people to do very efficient data collection on a variety of issues that are important for conservation. We often struggle determining how many animals there are, where human encroachment is occurring. There are an enormous amount of ecological questions we can address with these systems.
To set a flight path, Wich simply plugs in a few points on a Google Map, then launches the drone by hand. The battery-powered module can fly for up to an hour, and cover a maximum distance of about 40 km (25 miles). The drones offer an aerial view, allowing Wich and his colleagues to get a close-up view unobscured by clouds. The next step is to improve the analysis of the images that come back.
Conservation Drones is now working to automate the counting process, and build up picture-maps by stitching hundreds of images together (like the one above). It also wants to create 3-D model environments, providing a sort of living inventory of what’s been destroyed and what remains. Long-term, it is hoped that governments all over the world with conservation problems will used the detailed software and aerial drones to keep tabs on their endangered animals and habitats to ensure their protection.
Several other groups are also pioneering drones-for-conservation, notably the World Wildlife Fund working with Google, the International Anti-Poaching Foundation, led by Iraq War veteran Damien Mander, and ShadowView, a group out of the Netherlands. Poachers beware. In addition, the Zambian Carnivore Program will be testing a pair of VHF-radio-equipped quadcopter drones in the US soon and he hopes to begin testing the miniature aircraft in Kafue National Park in Zambia in May.
In the meantime, check out this video of the MET/WWF drone survey:
And learn more about Conservation Drones from this TED talk by Wich’s partner Lian Pin Koh: