The ConservationDrones.Org crew launches a drone over Madagascar. (Credit: ConservationDrones.Org)
The forests of Borneo and Sumatra are thick with vegetation and humidity. Primate biologist Serge Wich would know; he spent plenty of time navigating the thicket while looking for orangutans, the elusive subjects of his research. It was there, amid the stifling heat and near-impenetrable tangle of stalks and vines that Wich thought, There must be a better way to do this.
“It’s very slow work to do surveys in a forest,” Wich said. “How nice it would be to fly over those forests and get data from above.”
Many militaries and governments use unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, to keep an unobtrusive eye on a specific target. Wich talked with conservation ecologist Lian Pin Koh about challenges to conservation in January 2011, and the two researchers realized that the aerial surveillance technology could help conservationists study threatened animals and habitat loss.
In February the following year, Wich and Koh conducted their first field tests in North Sumatra, Indonesia with a prototype drone. With a price tag under $2,000, the custom-built drone undercut many commercially-available models — a factor the researchers knew would be significant to potential early adopters in conservation, where funding is often tight. The following April, they co-founded ConservationDrones.org to reach out to like-minded conservationists and inform the public of conservation challenges.
“It is more of a project than an organization,” Wich said. “We all have our day jobs, and for some of us it’s part of our day jobs.”
There are five core members of the project, along with six auxiliary crew members. Together they work with conservation researchers and governmental agencies around the world, particularly in developing countries. That work includes a project in Nepal supporting conservation authorities in national parks protecting rhinos and tigers.
“In Nepal, poaching has been reduced to zero at the moment, which is really good,” he said. “Drones are part of that effort.”
ConservationDrones.org undertakes a variety of other missions, from studying chimps in Tanzania, to working with the World Wildlife Foundation in Zambia, to catching illegal fishing boats in the act in Belieze. A project in Sumatra monitors forest loss that puts orangutans out of their homes.
“We’d prefer to not be seeing loss, but there is forest loss, and drones have been effective in detecting that much faster than if we had been going out on foot or if we’d been using satellite images,” Wich said.
Drones haven’t had the rosiest public image since their adoption for military and security work. Opponents from the media and civil rights groups have attacked the technology as an intrusion of privacy at home and a source of recruitment fodder for terrorist cells in regions where drones carry out routine aerial strikes. So has ConservationDrones.org drawn any ire from concerned citizens?
“So far not really, because we usually fly over relatively remote areas where there are very few people,” Wich said. “Of course poachers will not be happy if you fly over those areas, but again, they’re not supposed to be there in the first place.”
ConservationDrones.org has already accomplished a lot after only a couple years of operation. And Wich said the public should expect to hear plenty more about their work in the future.
“We always would like to expand,” Wich said. “And we probably have to, because we get a lot of requests for projects.”
Top image: The ConservationDrones.Org crew launches a drone over Madagascar. (Credit: ConservationDrones.Org)