Protecting wildlife with drones

Engineers from the University of Southampton, and conservationists at Marwell Wildlife in the UK have successfully tested the use of drone technology, as a new approach to assisting wildlife conservation efforts.

According to a statement from the university, it was collaborative operations between the IRIS Centre of Excellence, SotonUAV, Marwell Wildlife and the School of Biological Sciences that oversaw several flight trials at the Marwell Zoo to test how effective drones carrying specialist cameras and noise sensors could be in identifying and monitoring animals from the air.

The teams conducted the flights in October and November, performing several flights above the zoo’s Wild Explorer’s paddock, which holds herds of critically endangered Grevy’s zebras, scimitar-horned oryx and white rhinos.

The goal is to employ these technologies in remote areas where threatened animal populations are more difficult to monitor.

Dr Mark Pickering, Impact Acceleration Manager at the IRIS Centre of Excellence, said: “These trials here at Marwell allowed us to gather a great deal of data which we can now work with to look into things like image processing algorithms and machine learning.”

Visual and thermal cameras were mounted to the platforms, as well as AudioMoth acoustic sensors to monitor the noise levels of the drones and record animal sounds.

The drones were operated by SotonUAV, an uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAV) team at the University of Southampton.

Dr Mario Ferraro, Senior Enterprise Fellow and a founder of the SotonUAV group, said: “In these trials we’ve been using the multi-rotor platform to carry the sensor where we needed it.

“When we work in a field trial environment, distances are going to be much larger and we will have to rely on a different kind of platform, most likely a fixed-wing drone.”

Results from the trials show the animals were predominantly unaware of the drones, which were flown at varying heights for short periods of time.

Which is just as well, because there is debate among wildlife conservationists about how much drone technology disturbs the natural habitat in parks and conservancies when deployed to monitor animals. There have been a few times when drones flown illegally over birds and animals caused devastating effects; the worst of which was when a drone crashed in a nesting area in the USA, scaring hundreds of birds into abandoning their eggs.

The teams say there were hugely helped by the information gathered on Marwell Zoo. Picture: Bob Entwistle

In this regard, researchers at the University of Stellenbosch’s Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology, Faculty of AgriSciences followed some elephants at Liwonde National Park and Majete Wildlife Reserve to establish how best the animals could stay to their true selves when drones were around.

“Our study clearly demonstrated that the speed and angle at which elephants are approached by a drone play a critical role in the elephants’ ability to tolerate drones,” the final report said. “Because presence flights depended only on the approach success, early exposure to drones determines the ability to stay with target subjects.

“Drone pilots, regardless of purpose (scientific or cinematic), need to be made aware of this and understand that speed and angle of approach will affect elephant responses, but once the approaches are unsuccessful, mitigating the effects in order to remain with target elephants becomes difficult. Drone pilots should always approach elephants with extreme care as reckless flying and repeated negative experiences are likely to limit drone success for elephants and may contribute to population stress.”

“Furthermore, because drones are more likely to be used on stressed populations, pilots need to exert caution.”

In Southampton, the head of Conservation Biology at Marwell Wildlife, Dr Philip Riordan said the research team found the trials they have been carrying out at Marwell hugely informative.

“The greatest surprise is the clarity that we’re able to get from these devices, which are hovering above animals in the air, and the resolution and definition that we can see,” Dr Riordan said. “Technologies, such as the use of UAVs for getting much finer detail monitoring for species such as Snow Leopard and the prey that they rely upon, are very valuable and worth exploring further.”

The flights were completed in preparation for overseas field trials, which will look at assisting the conservation effort of endangered animals.

The project has allowed the teams at IRIS CoE and SotonUAV to gain insight into how their technologies can be used to find solutions to real world problems. This is the first of a number of planned applications of the IRIS CoE’s new EPSRC funded Matrice 300 UAV. The team is also recruiting for a PhD student to work on the project.

Said Dr Pickering; “By bringing the expertise together across the different departments, we’re able to bring novel technologies to push forward conservation aims.”


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