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‘Immense potential’ in tech: Q&A with Wildlife Drones CEO Debbie Saunders

Debbie Saunders

Debbie Saunders launched Wildlife Drones, a startup that uses drones to track animals that have been fitted with radio tags. Image courtesy of Wildlife Drones.

  • Drones have long been used to visually document and monitor wildlife, but an Australian startup is using the technology to listen for radio signals emitted from tagged wild animals.
  • Wildlife Drones combines drone technology with radio telemetry to allow scientists and researchers to track the movements of birds and mammals in the wild.
  • The technology, which has already been used in Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S., enables researchers to expand the area they can monitor while tracking multiple animals at the same time.

Debbie Saunders’s quest to make wildlife tracking more efficient started in the early 2000s.

The wild ecologist was studying swift parrots (Lathamus discolor) in Australia and found it challenging to track the birds’ movements from one point to another. She could use radio telemetry monitoring, fitting the parrots with radio tags and then tracking the signals emitted. But that would require walking around in the field holding up a tracking antenna to capture the radio signals. It was exhausting, labor-intensive, and limited the number of birds she could track.

So Saunders got to work finding a more practical solution. What followed was years of effort that eventually led to her launching a tech startup that attempts to solve the problem.

“My career has gone from bird-watching right through to having a tech company in kind of unexpected ways,” Saunders told Mongabay in a video interview.

Wildlife Drones, Saunders’s company, uses drones to trace and track animals that have been fitted with radio tags. The drones are equipped with sensors that receive signals from radio tags. Once the drone is launched, it stays at a given height or flies around, while sweeping up signals sent out by the tags. Using this method, Saunders said, 40 animals can be tracked simultaneously.

Debbie Saunders
Debbie Saunders launched Wildlife Drones, a startup that uses drones to track animals that have been fitted with radio tags. Image courtesy of Wildlife Drones.

Ever since the company was launched, the drone-enabled radio telemetry system has been used in countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Vietnam as part of wildlife rescue and reintroduction programs.

Debbie Saunders spoke with Mongabay’s Abhishyant Kidangoor about her company’s work, the challenges that exist in the field of conservation technology, and the ethical use of drones to monitor wildlife. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Mongabay: What sparked your interest in studying wildlife?

Debbie Saunders: I’ve always been passionate about wildlife from when I was really young. Wildlife always fascinated me, in particular Australian wildlife and its uniqueness. I loved being out in nature and exploring. That led me to spending most of my career as a wildlife ecologist, working across different industries. Environmental consulting industry to start with, and then I worked in the government on recovery programs for threatened species. From there, I ended up doing my Ph.D. on an endangered migratory bird. And it’s actually that bird which inspired the development of the technologies that I work with today. So my career has gone from bird-watching right through to having a tech company in kind of unexpected ways.

Mongabay: Could you tell me when and how you started using technology in your work?

Debbie Saunders: My research was always on small migratory birds, in particular the swift parrot. It’s one of the few migratory parrots in the world, and my job was to shed some light on where it was going and what it was doing. Every year, I would coordinate hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteers across southeastern Australia to go out and look for these birds and get a better understanding. We did that over a number of years as part of the recovery program. It did actually shed light on these massive movements that the population was making in response to drought that we didn’t know about before. So that was really fascinating. But what I didn’t have any data on was how do they get from one place to another place? What does that journey look like? And there was no technology available that could readily answer that question for me. It was one of the most mysterious things.

That’s when I felt the need to come up with a solution. They’re quite small birds, and so we couldn’t use satellite or GPS tags. I started thinking of more efficient ways of finding tags that we can attach. That’s where the journey began where I was exploring what was possible. When people are radio tracking animals, they typically walk around with a hand in the air listening for one animal at a time. One thing they’re always trying to do is to get to a high point to maximize the chances of picking up that signal. I thought, “What if you had a drone that could create a high point anywhere that you wanted?” And that was the seed of the idea.

Debbie Saunders launches a drone-enabled radio telemetry system.
Debbie Saunders launches a drone-enabled radio telemetry system. Image courtesy of Wildlife Drones.

Mongabay: What did you do next?

Debbie Saunders: I started searching out for funding to try and explore this. I wanted to see if it was even possible to do this, and it took a number of years to actually secure some funding to have a go at it. And to also find somebody who knew about drones as well, because I was most interested in not the drone itself but the sensor that we wanted to put on the drone to make it do something unique.

I had the original idea in 2008 when I was doing my Ph.D. But we didn’t get any funding until 2011. Then we proved it was possible to do it from a drone, which was exciting. But we also found out about all of the flaws with this original prototype. But interestingly, a lot of people started approaching me and saying that they really want one of these things too. By then, I didn’t have any more funding. It was only in 2016 that I started thinking about Wildlife Drones as a business. What does it take to make something that is really useful which is unlike those original prototypes? That question led me to Wildlife Drones.

Mongabay: Why do you think this technology is important at this point in time?

Debbie Saunders: By tracking animal movements, you can get really great insights on what is needed, and where to focus your effort to get the best return. The opposite is also true. For example, if you have a lot of pests in the environment that are causing damage, say feral pigs or deer, that are not native to an area and can cause immense damage to both the flora and the fauna. Understanding their movements means you can be more strategic and have a greater impact.

Radio tracking remains one of the key ways of understanding those movements. But it is incredibly labor-intensive, and involves walking around for hours and hours. And sometimes it’s not even possible to go across swamps or over mountains, or what have you. It’s very challenging, listening for one animal at a time when you have many animals that you’re actually trying to understand. Our technology enables people to track many animals simultaneously and enables them to track them from the air. They’re maximizing the chances of picking it up across whatever type of landscape they’re in, no matter how inaccessible. You can actually collect that data a lot easier, and get those insights much quicker, and make management decisions more effectively.

A lot of species are understudied because they’re so hard to track. One of the things that we’re enabling people to do is to track things that they couldn’t track before. For example, we found out that people who work in wetlands find it very difficult. They can’t walk, or it might be too difficult to take a boat. And so, they’re just very poorly studied ecosystems. We can actually open up the ability to study those ecosystems. We can actually increase the robustness of the information that they get, and just provide more deeper insights into what particular species require.

Wild pigs in Mato Grosso, Brazil, scampering away.
Invasive wild pigs in Mato Grosso, Brazil, scampering away. “Our technology enables people to track many animals simultaneously and enables them to track them from the air,” says Saunders. Image by Bernard DUPONT via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Mongabay: Could you walk me through the technology? How does it work?

Debbie Saunders: The first thing that has to happen with all of our clients is they have to tag the animals. There’s a tiny little tag, and it gives a beep-beep sort of pinging sound at a particular frequency. We listen — unlike most drone sensors which are visual and use cameras. We’re actually listening for the signals from those tags, finding which direction it’s coming from, and then triangulating as to where that animal is actually located. On the drone, there’s a radio receiver that does the listening for us and there’s a communication system between the sensor on the drone and a base station laptop. There’s a real-time data feed that comes down. The whole time the drone is in the air, we can actually see exactly which signals were picked up, which direction they’re coming from, and where those animals are. All the mapping is done in real time.

Wherever the drone flies, it leaves little red dots on the map along the flight path. Wherever a signal is detected, those little dots light up in green. So people can know immediately that they have picked up a signal.

One of the things that the tags often do is they have a mortality signal. So if the animal stops moving, the tags would change the pulse rate and we can read that. So while we’re just flying around the site, we can get a feel for where the animals are across the landscape. But we can also answer questions like “Are they alive? Or are they dead?” If they are dead, sick or injured, and if they’re not moving, people can get to that animal as soon as possible to identify what the problem is or to understand what has happened.

Mongabay: Could you give me a few examples where the technology was used in real life?

Debbie Saunders: In Vietnam, we have a client working with pangolins that are rescued from the medicine market, and released back into the wild. When they released them previously, they were so difficult to keep track of. They never really knew whether it was successful or not. Now, they can track them and can tell if they are doing well or if they are struggling. They can feed that back into the way they manage those animals in captivity to improve the survival chances.

Another application was by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, a nonprofit organization here in Australia. They do a lot of work on reintroducing native species to the wild. So this is a bit different from the pangolins in that, because of predation in the past by invasive species, the animals have been lost from the landscape and they’re reintroducing them back into the wild. Now, they’re able to track these animals. For example, the latest release that they did was of the western quoll [Dasyurus geoffroii]. This is a small, spotted, cat-like creature. Because they are a predator, and they operate on a larger scale than a lot of the smaller marsupials that they’ve been tracking, they were really worried they weren’t going to be able to get that data to see where they were going and how they were settling in or dispersing. But with the drone, they’ve been able to find the animals that they couldn’t find when they were on the ground, and also be able to keep up with them more frequently. That’s out in the middle of the desert, in a really arid environment, where you have sand dunes and it’s very hot and dry, compared to the tropical forests of Vietnam. So it doesn’t really matter what environment it is, this technology will work across virtually any environment that’s out there.

A western quoll.
A western quoll, one of the species that the Australian Wildlife Conservancy reintroduced into their habitat. Image by S J Bennett via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Mongabay: What have been the challenges in doing this work?

Debbie Saunders: The thing that really needed to kick everything off was really understanding what people needed. Coming up with an idea and creating a product, but then finding nobody needs it is not the best way forward. We spent two years initially validating. We kept asking ourselves, “Do people want it? Is it really enough of a pain point for them? Do they have another workaround that works?” So I think making sure that you understand what the need is, what it is that people are actually looking for was the challenge.

But it was great to see a lot of our clients adopting drones for the first time. They’re learning how to become a pilot, and learning about new technologies. I think it’s really exciting because as soon as they start using a platform like that, they can actually attach a whole range of different sensors. Ours is one sensor, but there are a multitude of cameras and other sensors and capabilities now. As we move further forward, just seeing these things more and more integrated and having one platform that can do a whole range of environmental sensing and having all of that integrated is a pretty exciting prospect.

Mongabay: Drones continue to be a popular choice for conservation efforts. What are your thoughts on how drone technology is progressing?

Debbie Saunders: Drone technology has definitely advanced, and their long-range capabilities are also advancing. Once safety mechanisms are in place, being able to do automated drone operations to collect baseline data, that is usually difficult to collect, frees up people to go and do the more detailed and important work of understanding that data and observing the animals and documenting what the experience is on the ground. It’s important to remember that people are always going to be an important part of it, even if there’s automation. Automation will only make sense if it’s interpreted correctly by the people.

But the capability of drones is increasing a lot in terms of the weather they can withstand. They’re a lot more waterproof and able to withstand strong winds, and the flight time is getting longer. But they’re not always necessarily aligned with the applications. That is exactly what happened with us. When a new generation of drones came about, it was ridiculously noisy in the VHF band, which is a very high frequency band. But that’s where we listen for these tags. So we couldn’t use those drones. They were too noisy to be able to check wildlife. When you are working with wildlife, you want to be quiet not only in the VHF band but in general.

Ecologists at the Australian Wildlife Conservancy launch Wildlife Drones’ radio-telemetry system in search of recently reintroduced western quolls. Image courtesy of Brad Leue / Australian Wildlife Conservancy.

Mongabay: How can we ensure drones are used more responsibly around wildlife?

Debbie Saunders: Our case is different. Our system actually listens for the tags from a distance. And so unlike most applications of drones that are visual where you’re flying over the top of the animals to get the visual or to count them, we’re actually listening from a distance and we don’t want to disturb their behavior because that’s exactly what we’re trying to understand.

But even with camera drones, things are changing with enhanced camera capabilities. The higher you can fly, the less disturbing it is. So as those advancements happen in the lenses, that also definitely helps. The biggest impact is how you fly. Even if you have a really quiet drone, but fly it irresponsibly, then it’s going to have a big impact. So it comes down to the operator.

It’s important to make sure to operate in a way that is always considerate of wildlife — always scanning the horizon before you take off to make sure there isn’t a bird of prey or something else flying overhead. Always be aware if you’re impacting something. If so, stop flying or move away or distance yourself or go on a different day or go in a different season. So I think there are lots of things that I think most drone pilots never get taught about. And I think there’s an education angle there that could definitely be improved as to how to minimize those impacts.

Mongabay: Broadly speaking, how do you think technology is faring when it comes to conservation?

Debbie Saunders: I wish there was more investment in it. I think there’s immense potential in everything from the sensors that can be used on the ground or in the air, the linking of those things, the connectivity of all of those things. It’s all completely possible if it had the investment to make it happen at scale. So our challenge, I guess, is to garner that support to make that happen in various ways.

There is so much data out there. Everything from environmental DNA through to acoustic monitoring, visual monitoring, drone-mapping surveys, tracking movements. But a lot of that data exists in silos right now. There’s AI being developed for multiple applications. But I haven’t yet seen the realization of all of these things together, and I think a lot of it comes back to that investment.

I’m not sure what we need to do differently in order to get that funding. But what I would like to see with the new global biodiversity framework that was announced late last year at COP15 is biodiversity being taken more seriously at the corporate level and at the government level.

Mongabay: Finally, where do you see Wildlife Drones in the next 10 years?

Debbie Saunders: I would love for our technology to be used in every ecosystem across the planet. I feel like we can enhance so many different conservation initiatives and be able to not only track animals, but also collect data from the ground using other sensors to be able to monitor a lot of things from one platform. We’re currently delivering to Australia, U.S., New Zealand and Vietnam. We really want to get it to Africa and further throughout Asia. Because it does work across all of these landscapes. So we’re actually taking those steps right now.

Abhishyant Kidangoor is a staff writer at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter @AbhishyantPK.

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