Drones and wildlife conservation, such an obvious solution

26 Aug 2015

Researchers in Australia have developed a way to use drones to track wildlife that humans have difficulty in reaching, opening up the door to pretty significant improvements in animal conservation around the world.

The conservation of wildlife is an incredibly laborious task, requiring huge hours of trekking and documentation just to establish the base figures you are working with.

Despite the massive step forward GPS trackers have provided to conservationists, the need to access species that specialise in reclusive behaviour is still a huge obstacle.

Perhaps not for much longer, though, after researchers in the Australian National University (ANU) and The University of Sydney developed a radio-tracking drone to locate radio-tagged wildlife.

Doctoring a store-bought drone, the team took the camera payload off the device, replacing it with a custom receiver system.

Never done before

“It enables us to fly a very small, portable drone and track wildlife in any number of areas,” explained Debra Saunders of the Fenner School of Environment and Society, “something never done before”.

Saunders, a wildlife ecologist, came up with the idea eight years ago to track small dynamic migratory birds such as the endangered swift parrot.

The unmanned aerial vehicle has successfully detected tiny radio transmitters weighing as little as one gram.

“Lots of people are trying to do this. It is not an easy process, but we believe we’ve come up with a solution,” said Oliver Cliff, from the Australian Centre for Field Robotics.

It’s all about the time savings

The potential in this device is huge. For example, we recently spoke with Doug Smith, a wildlife biologist in Yellowstone National Park, who explained how huge amounts of time are spent on tracking down wolves to collar them.

Mike Baltzer, WWF’s Tigers Alive initiative leader, feels tiger conservation is held back by the difficulties in tracking the predators.

This, in theory, could be improved if drones can be utilised in the right way, although obviously trying to catch tigers and actually tag them in the first place remains a huge issue.

“Radio tracking of collars manually is very time-consuming,” explained Adrian Manning, associate professor of Fenner School of Environment and Society.

“Early indications are that the drones could save a huge amount of time. If you have two operators working and they can put the drone up in two bursts of 20 minutes, they can do what would take half a day or more to do using ground methods.”

The research was published in Robotics.

Main image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic