Can drones help democratize conservation monitoring?

  • The unique vantage point provided by drone systems enables a diverse array of uses and users

  • UAS use can democratize aerial monitoring of remote parks and indigenous communities while also integrating with advanced remote sensing techniques

  • The conservation community has begun making effective and efficient use of UASs despite, and perhaps due to, small budgets and a relatively high understanding of their technological capacities

Researchers and managers in the conservation field are developing creative new uses for emerging technologies that make their work more effective and efficient. And WildTech is helping share their experiences and information.

Here, we follow up on a pair of meetings focused on perimeter defense and drone use for conservation and research – held this past September at California Academy of Sciences – by tapping into the experiences of the professionals who attended.

There was a lot of excitement in particular about innovative uses of unmanned aircraft systems (a.k.a UASs, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, UAVs or drones) for conservation. Field work frequently requires aerial sensing and monitoring and benefits from a bird’s-eye view, and the typically low budgets of research and conservation projects encourage searching for cheaper alternatives to current methods.

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Meg Lowman, Chief of Science and Sustainability at California Academy of Sciences, opens the Conservation Drones Summit, September 2015. Photo credit: Sue Palminteri

To extend the discussion of conservation technologies beyond the two symposia and open it to a broader audience, we’ve compiled brief answers from several participants to the following questions.

  1. What was the most exciting technology, trend, or idea you learned during the conference?

“I am inspired to learn about the diverse conservation applications of drones – from detecting toxins in water columns to detecting illegal logging. The notion of a small craft serving as the eyes for planetary health can create positive outcomes for the future.”  —Meg Lowman, California Academy of Sciences

“I think that the most interesting trend is the creative way that drones are being used in several contexts, but their use is clearly in its infancy. Also, the real-time alert monitoring that can occur offline in remote areas [is promising], though this needs to be seen in practice and [show it can] have an impact. There is great potential for these technologies in the field, particularly with indigenous communities protecting their increasingly threatened territories. It is inspiring to see satellite and mapping software, such as PIX4D, that further heighten the visibility of these issues and can serve as a tool for local decision-makers who had not previously seen their forests from that perspective.”   —Tom Bewick, Rainforest Foundation US

“As a tropical forest ecosystem ecologist, I’m most excited about our ability to fly sensors on UAV platforms that provide much more information than that provided by simple RGB (red, green, blue) cameras.  There is a long history on the use of satellite and aircraft sensors to obtain important information that is well beyond what we can see with simple cameras (e.g. multispectral, infrared sensors, LiDAR for measuring vegetation structure), and UAV systems are just starting to fully develop these advanced remote sensing approaches for addressing challenging ecological questions.”  —Jeff  Chambers, University of California-Berkeley, Geography Department

“The use of drones for conservation is rapidly growing and has a near limitless number of applications, as seen in the many pilot efforts with different user groups in the past few years. With lessons learned from these trials and errors, we can expect to see more informed expansion of use in the next few years, as well as the development of technologies that enhance the use of drones, including software for faster processing and analysis, longer lasting or lighter batteries, more versatile sensors, and more.”   —Loretta Cheung, World Resources Institute

“My most striking take away is how much conservation groups have already reaped the value of drone and imagery technology, in terms of costs, safety, and rapidity of obtaining results. Their low budgets are forcing them to be early adopters of disruptive technology.”  — Antoine Martin, Pix4D

“The first exciting thing was the intensity of needs right NOW in addressing deforestation, which are eventually needs that can strengthen local communities and empower them in protection of habitats, along with sustainable use and development. The second was the affirmation of how much goodwill is out there, but a lack of understanding pushes groups, companies and organizations to try specific [technologies] which are not necessarily relevant or feasible, demonstrating the need to integrate disciplines, methods and systems.”  —Nir Tenenbaum, Wildeas

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Expert panel at Conservation Drones summit included representatives from ConservationDrones.org, DJI,Innovations, and 3D Robotics. Photo credit: Sue Palminteri
  1. What do you see as the biggest near-term opportunity in using drones for conservation?

“The biggest near-term opportunity in using drones in conservation still lies in the “mapping/survey” category, where UAV’s can provide mapping and information (visual/EO or other) to custodians of areas.  Current systems are best suited to small areas, and a process must be in place to assess their relevance and viability in each area. A second opportunity is using drones in security operations (such as responding to poaching alerts), strengthening the ability of field teams to investigate [a situation] and check alerts and events before [approaching poachers].”  —Nir Tenenbaum, Wildeas

“By making drones and image processing easy to use, local communities can be taught how to use drones themselves, without the need of an organization to do it on their behalf. Drones are empowering once they can be made simple.”  — Antoine Martin, Pix4D

“As a canopy scientist, I am hoping to deploy drones to ‘substitute’ for tree-climbing…. Collecting data on vine distribution and flowering trees in some of our remote tropical rain forests will allow us to multiply our data outcomes in short timeframes, as well as serve as ‘ambassadors’ in local villages where the kids really love to operate the technology along with us!”   —Meg Lowman, CAS

“Human-caused climate change will soon force tropical forests into high temperature and extreme drought regimes that have not been experienced by these ecosystems for probably millions of years.  Data from UAV systems will enable an unprecedented ability to understand how these forests are changing at critical landscape to regional scales, allowing us to better protect these valuable ecosystems.”  —Jeff  Chambers, UC-Berkeley, Geography Dept

“I think [the opportunity] is two-fold. On one hand, the visualization of impacts on the rainforest. There is nothing like a perspective from above on illegal activity that causes rainforest destruction. The other would be the democratization of mapping and aerial perspective. Prior to the advent of small drones sold commercially, communities and practitioners were not able to afford those perspectives, which are an invaluable tool for forest communities.”  —Tom Bewick, Rainforest Foundation US

Continuing the discussion

These participants’ responses reflect the broad variety of activities and interests of the research and conservation community in using UASs.

Help broaden the discussion – leave a comment on what you see as the biggest near-term opportunity in using drones for conservation.  Or visit our Forum to start your own discussion.

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