With names like the Switchblade, Raven, Predator and Reaper, drones – also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or UAVs – are already having an impact on the battlefield and in law enforcement. Now drones are taking off in the world of wildlife conservation and management.
Helicopters have long been the tool of choice for aerial wildlife monitoring; they've been used to survey animals ranging from elk and mountain goats to sea turtles and whales, and dozens of species in between. But the conventional approach is not without challenges. Time in the air is costly, upwards of $700 per hour, and that’s if a pilot can be found. Plus, low-level flying also stresses animals and can be dangerous for the humans involved. Between 1937 and 2000, 60 biologists and technicians were killed in aviation accidents related to wildlife management. At least another 10 have perished in recent years.
Drones operate at a fraction of the cost and are relatively easy to operate, with more precision and far less risk. Aerial wildlife surveying was the first step in using drones for conservation, but around the world drones are now being used to monitor protected areas, collect data in remote areas and even catch poachers.
Courtship and Copulation on the High Seas
Six of the world’s seven species of sea turtle are listed as threatened or endangered; their populations devastated by commercial fishing, pollution and habitat loss. Restricting human activity, particularly around critical periods, is seen as key to helping these populations recover.
Unsurprisingly, sea turtle courtship and mating occur in the open ocean, often over many hours. But until recently, the where and the how has eluded researchers. Prior to 2016, only five published studies focused on these behaviors; the most comprehensive of which was carried out a commercial turtle farm.
Now researchers at the University of Alabama are using drones – the DJI Inspire 1 UAV, to be exact – to locate, identify and monitor green sea turtles along the western Gulf of Mexico. Their efforts, reported in the journal "Herpetological Review," yielded nearly 50 hours of video, capturing eight of the 11 specific courtship and mating behaviors documented in earlier studies.
In Saint Martin drones have been used to streamline daily monitoring for sea turtle nesting activity. Sea turtles nest in remote habitats over large areas, making traditional methods of surveying both costly and time consuming: hours of observer time to cover endless stretches of remote beaches. With drones, miles of shoreline can be covered in mere minutes. Perhaps more importantly, using drones reduces the likelihood of disrupting turtles or, worse, crushing their nests.
The Stealth Bat Tracker
To study bats in flight, scientists have used kites, balloons and towers, but all have their limitations. UAV noise, which drowns out bats’ echolocation signals, has been a non-starter for using traditional drones. But researchers at St. Mary’s College have developed a new drone – the Chirocopter, named after the scientific order containing bats, Chiroptera – that physically isolates UAV noise.
The team deployed their UAV outside a New Mexico cave that's used by Brazilian free-tailed bats. Just before dawn, the bats return to this roost at high speeds. Maneuvering the Chirocopter to the middle of the swarm, the researchers recorded both the bats’ chirps – echolocation signals that bats use to navigate – and thermal video data. At heights ranging from 15 to 150 feet, the team recorded nearly 46 chirps per minute. Ultimately, they hope Chirocopter can help them determine how these animals avoid colliding with one another, mid-air and in the dark.
In Search of Pink Dolphins
The Amazon river is home to two species of freshwater dolphin: the pink river dolphin, also known as boto, and its smaller gray counterpart, the tucuxi. Both species face threats from habitat loss associated with dam construction, as well as fishing and pollution. Studies have suggested that boto populations are declining, but the elusive nature of the species, coupled with its complex and remote habitat, makes these animals extremely difficult to reliably track and count.
Scientists with the Mamirauá Institute and World Wildlife Fund turned to quadrocopter drones to fill this data void. Over three trips in 2017, the teams collected aerial footage of dolphins in the Juruá River of the Brazilian Amazon Basin. So far, the method is proving cheaper, more efficient and more precise than manually counting from canoes. Ultimately, data collected will be combined with that from other countries and submitted to policymakers in the hopes of further protecting these species.
The Data, the Drone and the Rhino
Asian demand for rhino horn has pushed rhino poaching to record levels. From 2007 to 2014, the number of rhinos lost to poaching roughly doubled each year in South Africa. Despite an increased number of rangers and other efforts – even hiding large numbers of rhinos in secure locations – poachers continue to take approximately three rhinos per day.
The Air Shepherd initiative, launched in 2016 by the Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Foundation, uses data analytics and drones to curtail rhino and elephant poaching in Africa. In partnership with the University of Maryland’s Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS), the team uses models to predict where and when poachers will strike, and deploys near-silent, night vision-equipped drones to aid rangers in stopping them before animals are killed. In every area they’ve deployed, poaching has stopped within five to seven days.
- Idaho Department of Fish & Game: Helicopter Use in Wildlife Management
- Herpetological Review: Using Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Technology for Locating, Identifying, and Monitoring Courtship and Mating Behavior in the Green Turtle (Chelonia Mydas)
- SeaTurtleStatus.org: The State of the World's Sea Turtles Report
- Methods in Ecology & Evolution: The Chirocopter: A UAV for Recording Sound and Video of Bats at Altitude
- Biological Conservation: Searching for Trends in River Dolphin Abundance: Designing Surveys for Looming Threats, and Evidence for Opposing Trends of Two Species in the Colombian Amazon
- World Wildlife Fund: Researchers Use Drones to Count River Dolphins in Brazil
- South African Department of Environment Affairs: Rhino Poaching Statistics Update
- The Conversation: Satellites, Mathematics and Drones Take Down Poachers in Africa
- Air Shepherd: Homepage
About the Author
Barbara Cozzens has been writing for more than 20 years. Her work has appeared in publications of the Nature Conservancy, the World Bank Group, National Geographic Society, Duke University and others. Cozzens holds a Bachelor of Arts in biology from Colgate University and a Master of Environmental Management from Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment.