Conspiracy theorists might be disappointed to learn that some of the “spy planes” flying overhead aren’t spying on them but instead keeping an eye on endangered species. “Ecodrones” detect poachers and tagged animals on the ground, and then relay that information to a command center and mobile law enforcement units to follow up. Todd Jacobs, NOAA deputy superintendent for operations and administration said drones are designed to be quiet and avoid detection, which will allow researchers to observe wildlife at close range.
Lian Pin Koh of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and his partner Serge Wich professor at the Research Center in Evolutionary Anthropology and Paleoecology at Liverpool John Moores University have been hailed as pioneers in developing conservation drones. By adding an autopilot system, opensource software to program missions, and still and video cameras to a model airplane, they managed to successfully put it together a drone for less than $2,000 which is 10 times cheaper than some comparable commercial vehicles with similar capabilities.
Conservation drones are operated remotely and can stay aloft for hours while capturing high-definition still photos and video. Percival Franklin at the University of Florida, which has been developing such drones for more than a decade, explained to the Guardian that the relatively cheap and portable drones fill a gap between satellite and manned aircraft imagery and on-the-ground observations.
Typically the drones used in ecological observation are custom-built off-the-shelf versions of commercial models that cater to poorer organizations and governments. Unmanned aircraft have been used to help NOAA researchers and military personnel around the world with oil spills, hurricane tracking, surveillance, combat and other tasks.
“We don’t have to risk personnel being landed on the beaches,” Jacobs said. “Exotic species introduction potential gets eliminated and we believe it’ll be less potential for any disturbance of the critters that are being surveyed.”
Collecting data about wildlife, in person, can be costly, time consuming and troublesome, not to mention dangerous. An expedition involving helicopters and aircraft, costs over $250,000. Another problem, the drones avert of frequent cloud cover over tropical areas makes surveying land use by satellite quite difficult.
''The potential uses are almost unlimited,'' said Ian Singleton, director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme. Behavior under the microscope includes everything from endangered Sumatran orangutan nests high in the trees to pygmy rabbit burrows in Idaho to salmon-eating seabirds off the Oregon coast to detecting rhino and elephant poachers in Nepal.
Recently, Google's Global Impact Awards program presented a $5 million grant to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to provide unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) designed to monitor endangered species.
Googles not the only one taking notice, Scientific American has named conservation drones one of the “10 World Changing Ideas” for 2012. WWF says it's focusing on "easily-replicable technologies," with its ultimate goal being to create an "efficient, effective network that can be adopted globally."
Image courtesy of chrisroll on FreeDigitalPhotos