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Drones striking a high-tech blow for conservation and the environment

Drones striking a high-tech blow for conservation and the environment

The use of drones has generally been synonymous with controversial globalised warfare, but falling costs and higher performance are now making them increasingly useful for conservation and environmental organisations. In the US, a non-profit group called Conservation Drones is working with manufacturers to scale up production, making drones more affordable for environmental groups and conservation scientists, with results that have already benefited Australian research groups. The founding director of Conservation Drones, Lian Pin Koh, told Guardian Australia the drones were a “game changer” that would “soon become a standard item in the toolbox”. Until now the effective use of drones for conservation purposes has been limited largely by their range and high cost.

A Conservation Drone in action in Aceh, Indonesia.

The Australian founder of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF), Damien Mander, has applied drone technology to the fight against elephant poachers in Africa. The former military man, who told the story of his journey from the Iraq war to conservation in a recent Sydney TEDx talk, describes his work as direct action law enforcement.

“With drone technology … we are battling each day to bring military solutions to conservation’s thin green line,” he said.

But the IAPF’s managing director, Ian Mackenzie-Ross, told Guardian Australia that impediments, mostly financial, had so far prevented the technology realising its huge potential.

“Right now many groups are trying to put drones to use in conservation. Our focus is very much anti-poaching and direct action. With the drone capability to be cost-effective it has to perform more than one role,” he said.

“What we find, though, is that the type of small-scale drones they are using are not that useful in such large areas. Really to be effective you need drones with about three hours of endurance that can carry sensors, so you’re getting useful pictures back. These vehicles can do mapping and wildlife counts, so it becomes a multipurpose vehicle. Only then does it become more effective than using light planes.”

James Brook, ship manager of the Sea Shepherd Australia vessel Steve Irwin, tells a similar story. He said Sea Shepherd had used drones to attempt to monitor whaling vessels, but “we’ve found they are more on the periphery of the wide variety of tactics we use”.

“The more effective techniques have been using ships, radars, tracking devices that we put on whaling vessels, and camera people in helicopters. But if the technology improves and we get given extra funding, we would certainly be open to further use of drones,” Brook said.

Conservation Drones has focused on gathering high resolution data to monitor the distribution of species in their habitats.

“These are low-cost, autonomous and operator-friendly unmanned aerial vehicles that are used for surveying and mapping forests and biodiversity,” Koh said. “These drones are able to fly pre-programmed missions autonomously over a distance of up to 40km, and acquire high quality videos and photographs of up to three-centimetre pixel resolution.”

The group says it has provided demonstrations, training and assembled drones to many conservation groups, including several working on critically endangered species in Asia, such as the Sumatran orangutan.

A research team from Monash university recently worked with Conservation Drones to monitor seabed nesting on a remote island off the West Australian coast. Flying at an altitude of 75 metres, they were able to detect crested terns and lesser frigate birds without disturbing their nesting.

Mackenzie-Ross said he could see the potential for drones in Australia if the price continued to come down and the technology improved.

“There are a lot of trials going on of low-cost units, but they are not really effective to cover large areas, or measure environmental degradation on a large scale or over a long period,” he said. “Certainly here in Australia we are not immune to poaching. It’s not poaching of endangered species, it’s more illegal incursions into national parks,” he said.

Koh acknowledges such concerns, but is more optimistic about the future of drones in conservation work internationally.

“Costs have already been coming down over the last five years, largely driven by a rapidly growing community of remote control aircraft hobbyists,” he said. “The main mission of Conservation Drones … is to help speed up the transfer of this technology to the conservation community.”

Fonte: The Guardian

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