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‘Conservation drone’ offers low cost survey options

US: Inexpensive aerial drones can help conservationists map forests, monitor land use change like deforestation, and track wildlife in remote and inaccessible areas, observed a new study published in the journal Tropical Conservation Science.

Lian Pin Koh, an ecologist at the ETH Zurich, and Serge Wich, a biologist at the University of Zurich and PanEco, built the “conservation drone” by outfitting a model airplane with a camera, sensors and a GPS unit. The flight path of the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) was programmed by clicking on waypoints in a Google Earth map interface, enabling the researchers to target specific forest areas for surveying and mapping.

Koh and Wich tested the drone above rainforests on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. After several 25-minute flights, they were able to stitch together aerial photographs to produce land use and land cover maps, document a wild orangutan atop a tree and a Sumatran elephant in a clearing, and detect agricultural conversion, demonstrating the useful conservation and environmental applications of the drone.

The findings are significant because conservation surveying and monitoring can be a costly endeavour. The researchers cite orangutan population surveys as an example.

“Ground surveys of orangutan populations (Pongo spp.) in Sumatra, Indonesia can cost up to USD 250,000 for a two-year survey cycle,” they wrote. “Due to this high cost, surveys are not conducted at the frequency required for proper analysis and monitoring of population trends. Furthermore, some remote tropical forests have never been surveyed for biodiversity due to difficult and inaccessible terrain.”

“The use of Conservation Drones could lead to significant savings in terms of time, manpower and financial resources for local conservation workers and researchers, which would increase the efficiency of monitoring and surveying forests and wildlife in the developing tropics. We believe that Conservation Drones could be a game-changer and might soon become a standard technique in conservation efforts and research in the tropics and elsewhere.”

Koh and Wich are now developing a more advanced version of their drone, including one outfitted with near infra-red, infra-red and ultra-violet cameras. The researchers recently tested new designs above rhino and tiger habitat in Nepal.

Source: Mongabay