A Watchful Eye over Wildlife: Drone Technology & Conservation

by Caitlin Andrews

When we think of field biologists, most of us imagine scientists trekking through uncharted rainforests or across endless savannas, armed with only a notebook and a pair of binoculars. These intrepid heroes, such as Jane Goodall, have shown us how much there is to be learned when we leave behind the comforts of civilization and immerse ourselves in nature. Yet, the line between nature and civilization is becoming blurred as the human population expands and encroaches on wilderness. At the same time, technology is becoming increasingly integrated with fieldwork, particularly in the area of conservation. Whether fitting an animal with a GPS tracking device or collecting plant samples to be analyzed in the lab, field biologists rely more and more on technology to increase the scope and impact of their studies. And, with countless species facing imminent threats to their survival, biologists must also strive for efficiency in their methods, which can be challenging in remote and often dangerous research conditions.

One of the most promising technologies to emerge as a tool for conservation is a technology that has already begun to gain traction in mainstream society: the unmanned aerial vehicle. To some, UAVs—better known as “drones—still seem uncomfortably close to something out of a science fiction movie. But, drones have already proven useful in fields as wide-ranging as the military, agriculture, and cinematography. And, now that drones have entered the realm of science, it looks like they could soon change the face of conservation.

Why Drones?

If scope and efficiency are two of the main obstacles that field biologists face in their research, then drones could provide the ultimate solution. In their most basic form, field surveys involve a census of an animal population and an assessment of habitat conditions. When performed on foot, these surveys can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to sustain for even a few years and, even then, they are so time-consuming and inefficient that only a rough estimate of population size or environmental conditions can be achieved. Manned planes or helicopters can provide an aerial view of an expanse of ocean or forest, but they pose a tremendous financial barrier which often outweighs any added benefits.1,2 These research methods can also be incredibly dangerous. Every time they go out into the field, field researchers take on tremendous risks, traversing perilous terrain, getting up close to wild animals, and, in some cases, encountering armed poachers.3 Surveys conducted by plane pose additional hazards. Far too often, well-meaning researchers put themselves—and others—in dangerous situations when they conduct low-altitude flight surveys over mountains, forests, or settled areas. From 1937 to 2000, two thirds of all job-related deaths reported among wildlife biologists working in the United States were attributed to aviation accidents—an astounding and disturbing figure.4

Drones circumvent nearly all of these risks, making them a promising choice for future studies. Compact and easy to operate, drones are relatively inexpensive when compared with manned aerial vehicles or on-foot surveys. ConservationDrones, an organization specifically aimed at developing low-cost drones for field research, has developed a drone for less than $2000.5 Miniature drones costing as little as $400 can be purchased online and later equipped with video and still cameras. Besides cameras, they can also be fitted with many types of sensors, from thermometers to pH meters to acoustic recorders; there is even the possibility that swarms of drones could function as a team, with each drone collecting specific information to be integrated into a larger dataset.6 Drones open up a range of possibilities for the scale on which data can be collected, as animals can be tracked over huge distances that no team of scientists could ever cover on foot. Perhaps most importantly, drones allow researchers to conduct their studies from a greater distance, making research conditions safer for them and for the wildlife they study.3

In the following pages, we will explore three case studies that exemplify the range of possible uses for drones in wildlife biology and conservation. At the same time, it is important to consider the challenges and ethical issues that might arise alongside this new technology as we try to assess what the future of drones and conservation might—and should—look like.

Marine Mammal Conservation Zones – Australia

In Australia, marine biologists have already had success using drones to identify which areas of the ocean would make the best marine mammal conservation zones. In a study conducted by Murdoch University’s Cetacean Research Unit,7 drones were flown over Shark Bay on Australia’s western coast. In an area of approximately 320 acres, drones took over 6,000 photographs at altitudes ranging from 500 to 1,000 feet. Researchers then analyzed each one of these pictures manually, attempting to count the number of dugongs, a marine mammal in the same order as manatees. Over 600 dugongs were reliably identified, but, even more amazingly, the researchers were able to recognize a wide array of other species, from schools of fish to whales to sea snakes. The breadth of species that could be seen, even from so high above, is promising, since only larger animals are typically distinguishable in drone photographs.

This simple census data might seem insignificant, but Murdoch University’s study serves to prove the value of drones for marine biology research. At present, the future of the technology seems limitless. Instead of having to manually identifying the animals in each photograph, researchers hope to one day have advanced computer algorithms that are able to distinguish between all species of interest and even identify individual animals.7 There is also the possibility that drones could take to the water, themselves. Human divers could be replaced by underwater robots equipped with propellers, sensors, and even sampling tools. This could be particularly exciting for those studying inaccessible deep sea vents, since underwater drones could dive down and return to the surface with samples of microorganisms for further study.6 While drone technology has a long way to go before this type of exploration is possible, the hope is that studies like those at Murdoch University will stimulate further research so that the future may not be as far off as it seems.

Ornithological Research & Drone Design – France

As drone technology begins to be applied to a range of species, many conservationists are concerned that drones may disturb—or even harm—the very animals they are trying to protect. To address these worries, a team of researchers in France conducted an extensive study on the impact of drones on birds.8 Drones are especially promising tools in the field of ornithology, since they could follow birds from the ground and into the air, perhaps even tracking their migratory routes. However, birds are also inherently susceptible to disturbance. Although drones are typically considered less disruptive than human observers, for birds, it could be more intrusive to be followed by a flying machine than to be watched by humans on the ground.

In their study, the French team exposed semi-captive and wild flamingos, mallards, and greenshanks to several drones. These drones varied in color, speed, and the angle from which they approached the birds—all factors that the authors hypothesized might impact the degree to which birds would be disturbed. Surprisingly, in 80% of trial flights, drones could get within 15 feet of the birds without any signs of distress. The birds did not appear to be affected by drone color or speed; however, they were more likely to be disturbed by drones approaching them from above, which, under natural conditions, would be indicative of a predator. While the authors advise launching drones from a distance and avoiding vertical approaches, they suggest that further research should be conducted to compare these results to the levels of disturbance elicited by human observers. It could be that drones, although foreign objects within a bird’s habitat, are actually less disruptive than one might think—which could open doors for a new phase of drone-conducted ornithological research.8

Human Land Use Changes & Orangutan Conservation – Borneo and Sumatra

The Southeast Asian islands of Borneo and Sumatra are notably the only places in the world where we can still find one of our closest relatives: the orangutan. Yet, most recently, Borneo and Sumatra are becoming notorious for having some of the highest rates of deforestation on the planet.9 Slash-and-burn deforestation is rampant, with most deforested areas being turned into oil palm farms. While there are regulations in place to protect some areas, these are largely ineffective, as many farmers start up plantations illegally in remote areas of the forest; there, the likelihood of being caught by rangers is slim to none. As the largest arboreal mammal, orangutans rely on large tracts of forest for food and protection. Having lost 80% of their forests over the past 20 years, orangutans may be doomed for extinction within the next three decades if nothing is done to slow the current rate of deforestation. Unfortunately, the likelihood of this seems very low when one considers the almost insurmountable demand for palm oil—largely used in food and cosmetic products—in the West.10

But not all have given up hope. ConservationDrones, founded by Lian Pin Koh and Serge Wich, is just one group aimed at saving orangutans, and they plan to achieve this via drone technology. Koh and Wich took one of their first prototype drones to the forests of Borneo and Sumatra to determine the feasibility of identifying orangutans and tracking human land use changes from above. Their drone—programmed to fly a specific, 25 minute route—was able to spot orangutans and their nests in the forest canopy, as well as elephants on the ground. After analyzing the photographs more closely, researchers could also clearly see which areas had been deforested and turned into farmland; they could even identify the specific crops that were being grown.5

Koh and Wich recognize the limitations of drones, including the fact that drones cannot fly below the forest canopy, which restricts which species they can be used to study. However, the possibility that drones could fly over uncharted areas of forest to document illegal land use changes has inspired them to continue their work, and they are currently working to upgrade their prototype for greater efficiency and a more diverse set of uses. They envision a time when drones could be programmed not just to fly a specific route but to fly directly to animals already fitted with radio collars. When drones find illegal oil palm plantations in the forest, they could also send GPS data back to a ranger station, which could immediately deploy a team to confront the farmers.5 The same concept could be applied to monitor poachers, and the presence of drones near endangered wildlife could hopefully act as a deterrent to illegal activities.3 Even more hopeful, some have considered ways in which drones could actually be used to reforest areas by dispersing seeds.11

Many people fear that drones may present a breach of human privacy, especially if they fly over settled areas and take data on human land use.2 As the technology advances, it will be important to consider how its use should be regulated. However, at the moment, the possible benefits of drone technology make it worthwhile to at least pursue further research. While deforestation rates are unlikely to be reversed, the fact that current trends could be slowed—even slightly—is promising, since it could give conservationists the time they need to come up with more long-lasting solutions.

Toward the Future

With studies like these, it looks as if the advancement of drone technology could help shape the future of conservation for the better. But, at the same time, the very same machines that are being used to help save animals are being employed for less noble uses, such as hunting. Many states, including Illinois and Colorado, are facing dilemmas over whether to ban drones used for the purpose of hunting; fortunately, many of them have chosen to side against the hunters, saying that these hunting methods are inhumane and unethical.12 However, this is only the beginning of the conversation. As drone technology becomes more and more common, it is bound to be applied to fields that come into conflict with one another. The question is how we, as a society, will choose to regulate these uses and what role we want drones to play in shaping our planet’s future.

Caitlin Andrews ’16 is a junior in Cabot House concentrating in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology with a secondary in Mind/Brain/Behavior.

Works Cited

  1. van Gemert, J.C. et al. European Conference on Computer Vision workshop 2014.
  2. Ogden, L.E. et al. BioScience 2013, 63(9): 776.
  3. Roden, M.; Khalli, J. UAVs Emerging as Key Addition to Wildlife Conservation Research. Robotics Tomorrow, Mar. 13, 2015. (accessed Mar. 31, 2015).
  4. Sasse, B. D. Wildlife Soc. Bulletin 2003, 31(4): 1000-1003.
  5. Koh, L. P.; Wich, S.A. Tropical Conservation Sci. 2012, 5(2): 121-132.
  6. Grémillet, D. et al. Open Journal of Ecology 2012, 2(2): 49-57.
  7. Hodgson, A. et al. PLoS ONE 2013, 8(11): e79556.
  8. Vas, E. et al. Biology Letters 2015, 11(2): 20140754.
  9. Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme. http://www.sumatranorangutan.org/ (accessed Mar. 31, 2015).
  10. Orangutan Conservancy. http://www.orangutan.com/ (accessed Mar. 31, 2015).
  11. Sutherland, W. J. et al. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 2013, 28(1): 16-22.
  12. Swanson, L. Proposed Bill Aims To Ban Drones Used for Hunting. Montgomery Patch. Mar. 27, 2015. (accessed Mar. 31, 2015).
A Watchful Eye over Wildlife: Drone Technology & Conservation
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