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.
A drone used for wildlife monitoring (Source: www.airbornedrones.co)
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:
Super Bat DA-50
Powered by batteries, its flight time ranges from eight to ten hours. It has a 2-stroke gasoline engine for flight efficiency and longevity. Its operational flight altitude peaks at about 4,600 metres (15,000 feet) at 72.5 to 129 kilometres an hour. Plus, its antenna can send information to the system’s ground station along with receiving and sending telemetry.
Fig. 1: Super Bat DA-50
Air Shepherd ZT-TIC
It was developed specifically for anti-poaching and is in use in several parks in Africa. With a service ceiling of about 1,220 metres (4,000 feet) and an endurance of around five hours, it includes a day and a night camera capable of sending live video feed to an operator up to 30km away. Can fly an automated route and has a control range of 50km line-of-site.
Fig. 2: Air Shepherd ZT-TIC
The long-endurance, high-altitude powerful camera and range make the Super Bat and Air Shepherd ideal for covering large areas that encompass most refuges. Both cover ground faster than anyone on foot or by ground vehicle that could alert poachers about rangers looking to catch them. Typical employment of these drones is to determine, based on past patterns, where poachers are most likely to enter the park and operate.
Sensefly eBee X
This is one of the first kind of a fixed-wing mapping and surveying drone, which is usually light-weight and can be launched from hand. It is used by forest rangers, surveyors, and geo-spatial professionals to manage, monitor, and collect various aerial mapping data, location details, and environmental conditions using built-in sensors and camera.
Fig. 3: Sensefly eBee X
The raw data collected by Sensefly can be used to maintain and dynamically create stunning high-resolution orthomosaic images. Or it can be used by photogrammetry software, such as Pix4Dmapper, to design and create topographic maps, including DSMs, DEMs, 3D points clouds, and more. We can get critical project insights from these topographic data, which can be shared with wildlife researchers, bird photographers, and animal healthcare professionals for better decision-making.
eBee X is also available with RTK or PPK for greater positional accuracy.
The future of drones isn’t in the skies. It’s in the ocean. “It feels like an amusement park ride—except it’s real. You’re really driving around underwater, exploring.”—Gizmodo
It is a remotely operated 15cm x 20cm x 30cm mini-submarine that weighs 2.6kg. This submarine is powered by eight 26650-format Li-ion batteries and can be assembled from common items, with the most expensive being Beaglebone Black Linux computer. The submarine is controlled from a laptop computer connected to the submarine via a tether and is equipped with on-board LEDs and a camera. OpenROV is an open source hardware project. Website: http://openrov.com; Latest version: 30.1.0
Fig. 4: OpenROV
Wildlife surveillance and counter poaching
Constant wildlife surveillance is always useful to avoid man-animal clashes when they cross their paths. There are many wild animals that have been categorised as rare animals in last fifteen years, such as wild boar and tiger. There are multiple reasons for their poaching and hunting, such as their valuable organs like tusk, bone, and teeth. At times animals attack because of their health issues, environmental changes, and food unavailability issues.
Hence, constant monitoring and surveillance of the wildlife is important to protect them. Conservation drones and modern technologies help in designing a robust solution to handle this efficiently. Using these drones, we can do surveillance remotely and understand the lifestyle of animals and help them to manage life better.
Fig. 5: Conservation drone system for wildlife monitoring
According to a research report from the studies published in wwf.org.uk, the fourth largest illegal activity across globe is wildlife poaching. (First three are drug trafficing, child/women trafficking, and counterfeiting.) Modern drone solutions like ideaForge Drones help develop an AI-driven solution for image pattern matching where the endurance cameras capture images continuously. The images are transmitted to remote cloud servers and analysed using AI solutions to understand the anomaly in wildlife movement. This helps in designing a counter poaching approach like alarm signals, diversions using sound notifications, and sensor based protection like dynamic electric fence.
The most popular anti-poaching solutions enabled and equipped by drone systems, which are popular for research and industrial usage, are listed below:
Air Shepherd ZT-TIC
DJI Inspire 1
Sensefly eBee Plus
Super Bat Da-50
Zeta FX-61 Phantom
Such anti-poaching solutions are specially designed for wildlife monitoring and are powered by AI-enabled customised software applications (as bundled license). These can be used for wildlife research related activities like census, animal tracking and migration tracing, habitat management for wildlife in seasonal changes, nest monitoring during incubation, and species identification.
Marine and land mapping
Geospatial information system based drone services are very helpful for both forest and marine (sea/ocean) level monitoring and mapping. These help to understand and study the landscapes, the density of animals and wildlife movements in different zones, climatic changes and their impact on the lifestyle of wildlife and, above all, tracking the poaching activities and devise an anti-poaching solution.
Radio telemetry can be used for animal tracking in forest and marine species monitoring in sea/ocean. For radio tracking animals, they must be tagged with VHF-radio tags to track from remote drone sensors to know their movement and count the animals.
Image analysis software like Agisoft and ImageJ, along with machine learning technique for wildlife availability, can be very useful for data analysis of thermal images captured from drones and used for animal counting and tracking.
These applications are popular in Britain, Germany, and Australia in dense forests and marine areas for wildlife monitoring and tracking. They reduce the poaching activities to a great extent.
Dr Anand Nayyar is PhD in wireless sensor networks and swarms intelligence. He works at Duy Tan University, Vietnam. He loves to explore open source technologies, IoT, cloud computing, deep learning, and cyber security
Dr Magesh Kasthuri is a senior distinguished member of the technical staff and principal consultant at Wipro Ltd. This article expresses his views and not that of Wipro