Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are rapidly changing the face of wildlife and conservation industry. They have the potential to revolutionise conservation and spatial ecology. At the core of conservation is the monitoring of species’ population and their habitats.
Traditional approaches and devices used for wildlife monitoring have been high-cost, sometimes inefficient and not so practical when used in remote or rough terrain areas. A major issue in monitoring systems is that the species can feel threatened and attack the monitoring devices and personnel, which could potentially impact the monitoring activities and lead to time and money wastage.
Drones fitted with thermal cameras can circumvent these problems and obtain accurate data and high-resolution images in a better, faster, cheaper, and safer manner. The use of drones in conservation sector need not be limited to monitoring and can be extended to management, technical services, eco-tourism marketing, law enforcement, anti-poaching, and search-and-rescue efforts.
Drone users categorised as ecologists or hobbyists need to understand the anatomy of eco-system that they handle. During wildlife monitoring, animals may not get directly disturbed but birds can get disturbed when they are incubating an egg or hatching it for protection. Hence the drones used should not be noisy or emitting laser lights to avoid disturbance.
Recent research shows that traditional approaches for wildlife monitoring can be dangerous and tedious, while drones can efficiently collect precise observational data for wildlife monitoring. Based on this advantage, research is going on for wildlife monitoring with drones, including thermal monitoring during night or dense forest monitoring. Some of the best practices derived by scientists to manage situations and mitigate, or even alleviate potential physical disturbances to wildlife, when using drones include:
- Expert advice and local resources be used to study the location before using drones for monitoring.
- Appropriate approval and permissions be taken from authorities for using the drones.
- Proper training and dry run experiments be conducted in simulated environment to avoid unforeseen failures in real-time monitoring.
- Proper understanding of civil aviation rules—including restrictions in flying distance/height, border conditions, altitude guidelines, night-time monitoring guidelines—be ensured first.
- Drones be used only for the research and not to disturb animals and threaten their regular life.
- Launch and operation of drones be managed from recoverable distance to avoid failure or accident.
- Drones should be designed to monitor behavioural and physiological stress responses, when possible, and record for study purpose.
- Be ready to abort drone operation when there is excessive disturbance caused to animals.
Drones and AI (artificial intelligence) technology are advancing and evolving wildlife surveys. Tracking species through collaring can be dangerous and may be invasive and disruptive to the animals. Gathering data via drones is more efficient and safer for both animals and the researchers. Using drones, biologists can collect the information they need through specialised sensing technology, including lidar, RGB, corona, hyperspectral, and thermal sensors. Importance of drones is recognised for environmental monitoring to track the health and population growth of indicator species and monitoring the overall health of habitats and ecosystems.
Drones for wildlife monitoring
Wildlife monitoring is a challenging activity among environmental activities like wildlife’s social environment, birds, and natural resources such as volcano, waterfalls, and rivers. Since drones are equipped with cameras, laser lights, GPS tracking, altimeters, etc, they are highly effective for wildlife monitoring.
Modern conservation drones also use thermal and long-distance focal-point cameras to monitor wildlife during day as well as night-time. In addition, they use motion sensors and accelerometers for calculating and recording the vehicle movement and even the direction of wildlife animals and/or birds.
Modern AI solutions like footprint identification technique (FIT) are being experimented with for wildlife population tracking and census, animal movement and migration in different seasons, and any occasional or regular seasonal health issues or threats to wildlife animals and birds. The recorded data can be stored in a data pool and used for analytics such as historical data evaluation, any regional and climatic understanding of specific and rare wildlife, and environmental changes over a period of time to study their eco-system.
Following are some of the best wildlife monitoring drones known at present: