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Saving the world’s fast-declining wildlife with drone technology

The world’s wildlife population is decreasing at an alarming rate. According to the global Living Planet Index, vertebrate species populations (amphibians, birds, fishes, mammals, reptiles) declined by 58 percent between 1970 and 2012. By 2020, the species populations may further decline by an average of 67 percent.

As humans, we rely on the earth’s diversity of species. Wildlife not only provides us with food — it contributes to a healthy ecosystem: clean water, fresh air, rich soil, and more. Without wildlife, we cannot live sustainably. Conserving these species is crucial for a resilient future.

Various groups around the world are creating a tremendous impact on conservation efforts but one that stands out is Conservation Drones, an organization that makes and promotes the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for biodiversity conservation applications in countries such as Malaysia, Madagascar, Chile, and Greenland.

In 2011, Lian Pin Koh, Professor and Chair of Applied Ecology and Conservation at the University of Adelaide in South Australia, and Serge Wich, Professor of Primate Biology at Liverpool John Moores University in the U.K., met and discussed the challenges they faced in their conservation work across Southeast Asia. “It became clear to us that we were losing the battle to conserve and protect the species we care about in the region — particularly the orangutan,” said Koh.

When Koh and Wich met, drones were still an emerging technology. There were few low-cost options available in the market that could be used for research or conservation applications. But for a pair of ecologists, nothing spurs innovation more than saving and protecting the environment.

As a remote control airplane hobbyist, Koh suggested the use of these planes to Wich as a way to take photos of the rainforest and perhaps spot orangutans and their nests from the air. “That would help us reduce the time and cost of surveying and monitoring these animals in the wild,” he said. With funding from the National Geographic Society, they built a prototype conservation drone — a remote-controlled airplane with an autopilot system and cameras strapped to its fuselage.

The first test flight of the prototype drone in 2012 in Indonesia’s Sumatra island was a success. Koh and Wich were able to capture images and videos of the rainforests they’ve been working on for years. “That was the first time we saw our rainforests from the air,” Koh said. “We immediately saw the potential of this technology not only for conservation of orangutans but also for the conservation and research of other species in different parts of the world.”

Their success led to ConservationDrones.org, a website Koh and Wich created to share their knowledge with those wanting to use drones for their own research and conservation applications. In 2013, ConservationDrones.org was formally established as a non-profit organization to help bring the technology to other conservation practitioners across the globe.

As part of their work for the organization, Koh and Wich brought the technology to countries that most needed it. They built fixed wing and multirotor drones, integrating different types of cameras and sensors for the applications needed by their partner institutions. One of their earlier projects involved using fixed wing drones to patrol Nepal’s Bardiya and Chitwan National Parks for potential poachers. Another project entailed using drones to patrol reefs and other marine-protected areas in Belize, Central America for illegal fishing activities.

For their research in the University of Adelaide, Koh and his team of 17 staff members and students are using drones to count the number of birds that nest in big colonies. “Traditionally, ecologists use binoculars and stand at a distance away from the colonies to estimate the number of birds. But in big colonies where there are tens of thousands of birds, it’s impossible to get an accurate count,” Koh said.

One of Koh’s doctoral students developed a method to fly drones over the colonies and take photos of them. The data captured is then fed to a computer vision software that counts the birds automatically. Koh notes that processing drone data requires high computing power, which the ThinkPad provides. “Drone data processing is graphics-heavy and requires quite intensive computer power to produce maps and three-dimensional models of landscapes,” he said. “My group has three units of the ThinkPad T440s that we use to process drone data. These laptops are powerful, giving us enough computer power for data processing.”

Koh’s group also uses their ThinkPads to fly the drones out in the field. Their drone work is done mostly by programming missions on the laptop and uploading them to the drones, which fly autonomously to predetermined waypoints. “The ThinkPad is very hardy in the field,” said Koh. “It has a simple design but is robust and can withstand challenging environmental conditions.”

Koh and his team are also working with the Department of Environment, Water, and Natural Resources in South Australia, using drones fitted with thermal imaging cameras to spot and count koalas on trees. The government agency aims to use drones to improve their monitoring efforts and develop better management plans to keep the balance between the koalas and the vegetation they depend on. Additionally, as the director of the university’s Unmanned Research Aircraft Facility, Koh supports other researchers using drones for their work. They have partnered with agricultural industries, mapping farms to help farmers better manage their lands.

“I want to continue helping other researchers use drones more effectively,” said Koh, looking to the future. With the widespread use of drone technology, the possibilities are endless — extending far beyond conservation and protecting the world’s forests and wildlife.

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