The use of drone technology, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s) is becoming more widespread across the public and private sector. The applications for the devices are seemingly endless and no industry seems immune to the positive role they can play. Long been used as a method for documentary makers to get close to wild life, drones are beginning to contribute an important service for conservationists and researchers.

Drone technology – Let’s do away with the negativity

Drones hit the mainstream headlines as weapons of war during the Iraq conflict and the continued military presence in Afghanistan. They continue to receive bad press with commentators focusing on negative factors such as increased public and private surveillance.

However, drone technology offers far more positive opportunities and the failure to educate the public is damaging both investment and innovation in the field. Opportunities in search and rescue operations, early weather warning systems and fast and efficient delivery of goods are all great examples of how the technology can be of help.

Application in the marine and wildlife sector

When filmmakers began to use drone technology to gain better viewpoints for wildlife documentaries it became obvious that the technology could be useful to scientists as well. Not only can the technology reach inaccessible locations in order to aid monitoring but they are less intrusive than traditional ground-based methods.[/vc_column_text]

In the past decade the technology has been used to help scientists to:

  • Observe natural behaviour of animals in remote locations such as Orangutan nests in Borneo.
  • Collate data to aid in population counts.
  • Relocate Californian Condors.
  • Protect vulnerable elephants in Africa by using infra-red monitoring to catch poachers.
  • Monitor the migration patterns of marine mammals.
  • Collect samples otherwise inaccessible to humans.
  • Track sharks and provide early danger warnings to coastguards in Australia.

Safer by far

In the past, the only alternative to researching from the ground was the use of light aircraft or helicopters. Both disturbed the wild life but also posed a risk to the operator due to the requirement for flight at low altitude. In fact, 60 biologists and researchers have died between 1937 and 2000 in incidents involving light aircraft.

Not only is the operation of drone technology safer for humans but because they can observe from further away, they are much safer and less stressful for the animals they are monitoring, too.

More reliable and cost-effective

Not only are drones a safer alternative to traditional research methods but the falling costs and rapidly improving developments in the technology make them a much more reliable source of data. They are fitted with GPS and high-definition imaging cameras allowing the data to be thoroughly analysed and verified.

The current generation of drones are also equipped with various sensors that can provide additional data. Some models can even collect things whilst in flight making then an excellent way to secure samples.

The falling cost of the drone technology coupled with the reduction in manned flights and boat trips will also help reduce the cost of research and monitoring. In fact, ecologists should take note that a single drone flight will use around 70% less fuel than a similar manned expedition.

With research budgets for scientists being squeezed all of the time the economy and flexibility offered by drones is a big bonus.[/vc_column_text]

What does the future hold?

Drone technology continues to advance at an exponential pace and further developments in the application for wildlife research and conservation are likely to include:

  • Enhanced thermal imaging to penetrate deep seas and thick undergrowth.
  • Greater range to allow remote access to more areas.
  • More robust models that can withstand greater/lower temperatures.
  • Improved reliability.
  • Improved manoeuvrability.
  • Smaller models to access currently inaccessible locations.
  • Greater signal strength to allow underground flights in caves.
  • Ability to collect and return greater quantities and accuracy of sampling.
Unfortunately, whilst there is a positive outlook for the technology there is still plenty of legislation that needs to keep up with the rapid development of the field. In many countries the use of drones remains illegal. Those that do allow the flight of the vehicles have restrictions on their use. Most require that operators have a license and that flights are sustained at a prescribed altitude.

There is no doubt that the widespread use of drones without regulation could be disastrous for both the public at large as well as the aviation industry. However, it is important that red tape doesn’t prevent drones from playing a continued, and important, role in the conservation of both marine and wild life.

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