Drones with its sensor data driven technology, have a wide range of conservation and environmental protection applications for wildlife conservation. From glacial feature modeling and erosion monitoring to animal counting and species identification.
As drones are becoming more common across the skies, whether it is for recreation, or business, or conservation projects, etc., scientists are both hopeful that they will bring great benefits to conservation of wildlife, but also deeply concerned about how they may impact wildlife in a negative way.
Drones have different sounds and different capabilities. They can fly under the forest canopy, they can get very close, and even follow an individual or animal. In some cases, drones have clearly negative consequences, such as birds occasionally flying into them.
In two studies, it is interesting how different animals react so differently to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). When drones flew within the vicinity of some bears and some waterbirds, they became anxious and confused, whereas, in a study of semi-captive wild flamingos and common greenshanks, 80% ignored the drone, no matter what color, approach speed, or the number of times it zoomed as close as 13 feet (4 meters).
UAVs used in wildlife can be utilized in a variety of ways, from small multi-rotor units that can scare invasive birds away from crops, to fixed-wing aircraft that fly above rainforests to spot orangutan nests. Flying drones have also provided more precise data than traditional techniques when it comes to monitoring birds in general, and seabird colonies, specifically.
Until recently, helicopters have been the most common tool for aerial wildlife monitoring. Such a conventional choice have had its challenges as they are very costly and they require a pilot, which may not always be available. Furthermore, any low-level flying is very stressful for the animals since they are so massive and make so much noise. Helicopters in general, do not have a very good record when it comes to safety. By using them, humans put themselves in danger. Serious injuries and even deaths are not uncommon when driving as there are significantly more helicopter crashes than airplane crashes, thus much more dangerous for humans.
Drones, on the other hand, are very safe for humans since they are pilotless, and inexpensive to purchase and operate.
Animal Management & Conservation
The list of projects which drones are being used for is long and continues to grow.
The following are a few of the types of conservation and environmental projects where drones are being used:
- Nest Surveys
- Migration Tracking
- Habitat Management
- Species identification
- Perimeter Assessment
- Animal/flock counting
- Camera Trap Image Retrieval
- Vessel Monitoring (e.g. whaling ships)
- Anti-poaching Activities (identification, deterrence)
- Animal Tracking (e.g. via radio tracker collars/triangulation)
One of the big names and most popular drones for use in environment and conservation work is the SenseFly eBee, which is a long range drone that can carry multiple sensors, such as RGB cameras, Near-infrared (NIR), red-edge (RED), multispectral, and also thermal cameras.
Could it be that flying robots may be less benign than we think, or are most animals able to “adjust” to the negative aspects of having drones around periodically?
While many, and possibly most, animals can “get used to” the presence of UAVs, the question is whether the same is true of endangered species or animals sensitive to such interference.
Part of the concern is the increased presence of drones. It is one thing to be perplexed, bothered, and/or stressed once in a while, but if it happens with any kind of regularity, the effect could become psychologically harmful to the animals. This could affect them physically as well where their immune systems could be compromised and make them more vulnerable to disease.
Overall, scientists agree that researchers need to keep studying both behavioral and physiological responses in wildlife to make sure the benefits outweigh the harassment factor for different species.