Tracking animals in a remote wilderness isn't easy. If they're endangered species, there may be only a few examples to count. And then there's the rough and vast terrain itself. Traditionally, researchers have extrapolated the health of a rainforest by taking samples from a small bit of it. But that method necessarily has flaws. Surveyors can only cover so much ground, and the quality of the observations vary.
These are all reasons why drones could be a game-changer in conservation, according to Serge Wich, a professor in primate biology at John Moores University. 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.
Wich is co-founder of Conservation Drones, a group of researchers and technologists spreading drone technology around the world. The nonprofit has already worked with conservation groups and governments in Nepal, Indonesia, Gabon, and Greenland, and Wich hopes to visit more places this year.
"The potential is huge to allow people to do very efficient data collection on a variety of issues that are important for conservation," he says. "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."
"Drone" conjures up technology that is militaristic or highly sophisticated. But Wich's UAVs are neither of those things. They are really glorified model airplanes with a few off-the-shelf components. But that's the beauty: the technology is falling in price and becoming more user-friendly. The kits Conservation Drones uses cost no more than about $3,000.
Its 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. 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 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 (see some examples above). It also wants to create 3-D model environments, providing a sort of living inventory of what's been destroyed and what remains.
See more in the TED talk by Wich's partner Lian Pin Koh. 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.