Dawn of the good drones

Conservation

What has long been used as a weapon of destruction can now be employed to conserve wildlife and forests. In India, drones have still not been used for ecological purposes, but the possibilities are clearly endless, writes Atula Gupta.

Orangutans in the Sumatran rainforests are being observed by eager researchers to see how many of these critically endangered species survive in their natural habitat.It is an arduous task, requiring hundreds of volunteers to battle through rugged terrains and weather intrusions to try and catch a glimpse of the primate.

To make matters worse these apes love spending most of their time in one of their high rise forest homes making it physically challenging to locate them. Conventionally, such a kind of census would cost at least 250,000 US dollars not forgetting the investment of time and manpower.

But this time, a singular device has not just radically reduced the financial burden to one tenth it is also providing the scientific community a peek into the private lives of the orangutans like never before. Without a single human being physically present in the forest, drones are changing a conservationist’s world.

 Unmanned aerial vehicles or drones have traditionally been used as a soldier’s companion. From locating enemy ships to pinpointing terrorist activities, these auto controlled aerial crafts have helped win many wars.

But it is the war against poaching and species extinction that the drones are now helping win. Be it the USA or closer home in Nepal, Indonesia and Malaysia, drones are reaching places where no humans have set foot and giving access to invaluable ecological information. As one conservationist rightly puts it, it is the dawn of the drone ecology.

Conservation aid

Percival Franklin at the University of Florida says that drones effectively fill the gap between satellite images and manned aircrafts. “The potential uses are almost unlimited,” said Ian Singleton, director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme.

They tested drones this year over Indonesia’s Tripa peat forest where fires set by palm oil growers are threatening the world’s highest density habitat of the great apes.
Activists of the Sea Sheppard Conservation Society launched a drone in December to check on Japan’s whaling ships in the ocean. It was an attempt to pin point the ship and force Japan to stop its annual whale hunting program in the Antarctic waters.

According to Lian Pin Koh, a pioneer eco-drone user and an expert on tropical deforestation, the idea of using a drone first came to him while he was in the jungles of Sabah in Malaysia carrying tonnes of heavy equipment for the field work. He recalls telling his assistant and wife, “How wonderful it would be if we could fly over that area rather than walk there again tomorrow.”

The idea stuck and in a few months Koh and his partner, Serge Wich turned a Chinese made model plane into an ‘eco-drone’. With a customized autopilot system, attached still, video cameras and open source software to programme missions, the drone’s cost was about 2000 dollars or roughly Rs. 90,000, ten times cheaper than the branded commercial varieties used for military activities.

The drones were flown over Malaysia’s forest where it is difficult for even elephants to tread. They were also used by WWF and Nepal army to detect rhino poaching activities in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park.

Graham Usher of the Sumatran project says drones can give them valuable information about orangutan nests in the forest and aid in counting the population. From higher altitudes the drones, he said, also provide high-resolution, real-time images showing where forests are being cleared and set ablaze.

The clear benefit is the radical cost cutting and the minimum manpower requirement. The only major drawback of using a drone is that it needs a clear landing place but Koh is trying to improvise and add a parachute to his design so that the drone can softly land on any vegetation.

Indian scenario

In India, the drones have still not been used for ecological purposes, but the possibilities are clearly endless. With the Western Ghats being declared as a world heritage site, the entire biodiversity hotspot needs constant protection and patrolling and this can be made feasible with the use of drones.

Tiger poaching cases in different forest covers can be checked and controlled to a large extent if drones are frequently flown over protected national parks.

Population census of shy animals like the critically endangered great Indian bustard can be carried out without distressing the birds. Elusive wild cats like the snow leopard can be conveniently sought out in their snow peaked mountain homes.

In flood like situations like the recent devastating floods of Assam, drones can be life saviors, giving accurate location of stranded animals, increasing the reach and helping them in time. Human-animal conflict can be reduced drastically, by checking wildlife that comes too close to a human habitation.

Technology and ecology are two words that are frequently pitted against each other in the modern world. But drones are yet another example of a technological device that can help the environment rather than harming it.

If their full potential is explored the drones that have for long been used as agents of destruction can now turn into agents of conservation.
 

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