Drones aid experts in wildlife conservation (Today, 20 August 2012)

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Drones aid experts in wildlife conservation

Pranburi (Thailand) – They They are better known as stealthy killing machines to take out suspected terrorists with pinpoint accuracy. But drones are also being put to more benign use in skies across several continents to track endangered wildlife, spot poachers and chart forest loss.

These unmanned aerial vehicles are already skimming over Indonesia’s jungle canopy to photograph orangutans and studying invasive aquatic plants in Florida.

“Counting orangutan nest is the main way of surveying orangutan populations,” says Mr Graham Usher of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program.

Relatively cheap, portable and earth-hugging, they fill a gap between satellite and manned aircraft imagery and on-the-ground observation, says Mr Percival Franklin at the University of Florida, which has been developing such drones for more than a decade.

A conservation drone pioneer, Mr Koh Lian Pin of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology say the idea came to him after another sweaty jungle slog in Sabah, hauling heavy equipment for his field work.

“I told my assistant, ‘How wonderful it would be if we could fly over that area rather than walk there again tomorrow’,” recalled the Singaporean expert on tropical deforestation, and who is also a model plane hobbyist.

Mr Koh and his partner at Conservation Drones, Mr Serge Wich, bought a model plane, added an autopilot system, open source software to programme missions, and stills and video cameras. All, for less than US$2,000 ( $2,507), or 10 times cheaper than some commercial vehicle with similar capabilities.

This year, they have flown more than 200 mostly test runs in Asia using an improved version.

The drones were flown over rough terrain in Malaysia where GPS-collared elephants are difficult to monitor from the ground. In Nepal’s Chitwan National Park, they were used to conduct trial on detecting rhino and elephant poachers. AP

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