Whether you consider drones a technological innovation or a nuisance to society, there is no denying their important contribution to conservation. The use of unmanned aerial vehicles in conservation projects has steadily been growing due to the increase in ease of use and accessibility, with their applications becoming more varied. They, therefore, provide a cost-effective and innovative solution for many problems faced by conservation projects.
One main function of drones in conservation project is for monitoring wildlife. They are a more accessible option for aerial monitoring and have successfully operated in more inaccessible landscapes. They can, therefore, be used to track changes in ecosystems, gather data on habitat structure and health, and monitor the movement and spread of species populations, including the spread of invasive species. It also causes less disturbance compared to in-situ researchers or helicopters, thus allowing for more accurate monitoring of natural animal behaviour and interactions within a habitat. A recent study has used drones to track the movements of foraging seabirds, mapping the vortices and upwellings of the sea to determine whether terns (Sternidae) change their foraging movements in response to differing surface flow (Lieber et al., 2021). Using this technology, this study was able to determine that terms preferred strong vortices over any other type of turbulence, most likely as they would bring the most prey items to the water surface. Therefore, the use of drones within this research has aided the ability of conservationists to predict how terns may respond to anthropogenically driven changes in the coastal environment that may affect surface flow, such as offshore wind turbines.
There are many threats to biodiversity and endangered species, including illegal exploitation. Drones have been used in multiple ways to prevent damaging activities such as poaching, trafficking, and illegal logging. This is especially necessary for white and black rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum, Diceros bicornis), whose population is under serious threat from poaching and the illegal rhino horn trade. Current anti-poaching strategies, such as security patrols, are expensive and not always possible for all national parks and private reserves. Drones were found to be an effective, low-cost method for provoking avoidance behaviour within southern white rhinos (C. simum simum), acting as a deterrent to move rhinos away from high-risk areas such as near fences or poaching hotspots (Penny, et al., 2019).
Drones can be used to capture highly detailed aerial photographs, which can be combined to produce habitat and geographical maps. This allows for more accurate, up to date maps rather than relying on other software such as LiDAR maps, which could be outdated and less fine-scale. Up to date habitat mapping is essential in conservation, as trends such as the loss or expansion of habitat areas can be detected, as well as disasters, allowing for more accurate conservation efforts and rapid responses within the area.
Not the perfect solution
There are several drawbacks of using drones in conservation projects, particularly in social aspects. There are laws governing the use of drones, including flight rules and no fly zones, which are particularly limiting in urban areas, as drones are often seen as an invasion of privacy. This can sometimes impact public opinion on projects, and may even reduce the likelihood of local communities supporting the go-ahead of these projects.
Additionally, many drone models are limited in battery life, thus having a reduced flight-time. This can reduce the usefulness of this technology for long distance surveys or for extended monitoring. Operating in adverse weather is also an issue, with rain and wind potentially damaging the drone. Therefore, operations would only be able to take place in dry, relatively calm weather, leading to gaps in recording data, which would particularly impact behavioural studies.
Lieber, L., Langrock, R., and Nimmo-Smith, W. A. M., 2021. A bird’s-eye view on turbulence: seabird foraging associations with evolving surface flow features. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 288, 20210592
López, J. J., and Mulero-Pázmány, M., 2019. Drones for conservation in protected areas: present and future. Drones, 3(1), pp. 1-23
Penny, S. G., White, R. L., Scott, D. M., MacTavish, L., and Pernetta, A. P., 2019. Using drones and sirens to elicit avoidance behaviour in white rhinoceros as an anti-poaching tactic. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological sciences, 286, 20191135
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