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Drones for Conservation and Environmental Science

By: Tyler Gillette

How do you feel about drones? Did you know that they can be used for conservation and environmental science? A study by Stanford University, Brown University and Spelman College was done to see how people felt about drones. Out of the 115 people were surveyed, nearly 70 percent said they thought of the military when thinking of drones, and more than 30 percent said drones would create chaos. But, maybe you have seen all the amazing wildlife videos that have gone viral over the world. Over the past few years, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones has been a rising trend. They were traditionally only used for the military, but now conservationists, researchers, biologists and environmental scientists are beginning to use them more often. Their potential for agriculture has helped increase their popularity. According to the federal government, 80 percent of drones will be used in agriculture, 10 percent for domestic surveillance and the rest for everything else.  The drones that are created by the company Conservation Drones that many conservationists and scientists use are able to fly pre-programmed missions automatically for up to 50 minutes for 25 kilometers. Their cameras have videos at 1080 pixel resolution and can take aerial photographs of less than 10 centimeter pixel resolution. These can be geo-referenced and give real-time. There are other drones such as insect-drones, precision flight drones, drones with arms that grab objects in midair, perching-drones, gliding-drones, solar-powered drones and one that acts like a flock of birds. Drones have done a lot recently for conservation since many NGOs, researchers and government officials have started using drones. Drones have been used to study orangutan populations in Indonesia. They have also been used to count Amazon river dolphins. Conservation International used drones and 12 rangers to detect illegal mining and timber activity. They have also been used to study the Great Barrier Reef. Another use is to look at how environmental factors influence disease. Farmers also can use them to see how crops are doing if replanting needs to be done or where to apply pesticides. Drones are used for numerous types of vegetation data as well. WWF has used drones for anti-poachingDrones also have a few setbacks. They cannot tolerate certain weather and environmental conditions and cannot travel far. Right now drone technology is also too young to use for climate change studies. Another large disadvantage is that you may need to receive permission in order to use the drones in certain areas. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules have made it hard to get this permission due to a long application. Except in the U.S, public universities and the government can use small drones. There are also regulations and restricted flyovers as well. In 2007, commercial use of drones in the U.S was banned, and in 2015, the FAA allowed businesses to integrate drones into their operations. Drones could also bother wildlife if used in high concentrations such as in U.S National Parks. But, it is believed that over time wildlife will be habituated to the noise that drones make. They also only have a limited battery life and if they crash than it is very expensive. They also need skilled and usually certified operators. Operators also can be bribed to give out data to poachers.There are many benefits to using drones for science. One of which is that they are unmanned. The number one killer of wildlife biologists is light-aircraft crashes. Between 1937 and 2000, 91 biologists and other scientists died in the field, and 60 of them were killed in plane or helicopter crashes while manning drones. Drones can collect large amounts of detailed information in real time at lower cost. Drones also provide accurate information on land changes. Their information on counting populations is also more accurate than ground counting. They are at least between 43 to 96 percent more accurate for bird counts. They can also provide with detailed videos, make it easier for scientists to collect remote sensing data and reduce man-hours. Scientists can also do long-term high-resolution experiments. Traditional data collecting methods can be time consuming or dangerous and can negatively impact habitats; whereas, drones have a minimal impact and can get to hard to reach locations.You can sit comfortably in an office while working, and you can even use them in places where there are conflict zones. Drones are more effective to look for poachers and to deter them because poachers know that drones are in an area.

Photo via Pixabay.