Drones for Sustainability: Part 2/2 – Drones for environmental conservation

The adoption of UAVs (unmanned aircraft vehicles) for the acquisition of geographic data is changing the field of environmental conservation, but developing countries struggle to adopt the technology.

Because environmental conservation is about assessing, monitoring, protecting and restoring wildlife and natural features, access to accurate and up-to-date geographic information is a key factor of success.

A 3D point cloud depicting a coastal area. Similar to lidar, point clouds provide 3D information that can be combined with the air photos for analysis and visualization. image: esri.com

Conventional data acquisition methods through satellite imagery, aerial imagery, terrestrial laser scanning or field surveys have always been slow and resource-intensive. Fortunately, completing a mapping exercise with a drone has now become a much easier task. All of the required steps, from flight planning to data processing and decision-making, can now happen within a day. High quality is also part of the deal since drone-mounted remote sensing devices such as high-resolution cameras, multispectral sensors or even LiDAR for 3D imagery, allow resolutions of 2-5 centimeters/pixel, about 10 times better than satellite imagery and at a fraction of the cost of standard aerial photography.

Drones seems to be quite the silver bullet for conservation projects, but there are still technical, legal and financial factors limiting their adoption. Progress is already taking place in battery and guiding-system technologies to extend their 50-100 km operation range; however, it is unlikely that legislation will evolve favorably. The popularity of drones for recreational use as well as announcements of upcoming commercial applications have prompted legislators to adopt new regulations restricting their use, in particular in urban areas, around airports or near sensitive facilities. Although these are not the usual settings for conservation projects, some countries already require drones to be registered and are now issuing fines and confiscating devices from pilots failing to do so.

Another barrier to adoption is financial, in particular in developing countries. Even though drone technology is considered a cheaper option than the conventional data collection techniques listed above, using it for a conservation project still requires an investment ranging between USD 2,000 and 30,000 for the UAV alone, which excludes the cost of manpower needed to operate it.

UAVs can be programmed to fly autonomously. image: conservationdrones.org

To reduce the need for technical expertise and facilitate adoption, drone makers have started offering off-the-shelf kits specifically designed for conservation projects but also for agriculture or humanitarian applications. Unfortunately these solutions are still expensive for projects in developing countries. This is why we would like to highlight two non-profit initiatives working to make drone technology accessible in these regions.

ConservationDrones.org was launched in 2012 by Lian Pin Koh, a conservation ecologist,  and Serge Wich, a primate biologist. Their idea is to make drones more accessible by disseminating technical information and assembly instructions so that the technology can be deployed by any conservation group, including those with limited funds. In addition to information about software and hardware, ConservationDrones.org has also developed its own prototype, which has been tested on numerous missions. Recent examples of conservation projects collaborating with ConservationDrones.org include the Cetacean Survey in Timor Leste or the Tree Cover Analysis in Tanzania.

Another interesting approach is the one taken by the INTECRAL project, an initiative supported by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. The team has developed and used its own UAV toolkit to map and monitor 25 protected riverine forest ecosystems in the Atlantic Forest of Rio de Janeiro. The custom-built solution, which was developed as part of a Masters Thesis, includes a DJI Phantom 2® drone weighing 1.2 kg that can perform flights of about 25 minutes at altitudes below 300 meters. The device has a gimbal system to stabilize an RGB digital camera and can collect high spatial resolution imagery. The toolkit has now been made available to the local community.

Stay tuned for our next article in our series on drones for sustainability.

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