The Sky is the Limit? Drones in Biodiversity Conservation

Conservation management requires large amounts of high-quality data on wildlife, habitats, land use and all other kinds of systems, movements and patterns. While on ground sampling remains crucial for data collection, aerial surveys facilitate a change in perspective. They allow for reliable and up-to-date data acquisition across highly variable ecosystems and large patches of land. In their recent paper, Pascal Fust and Jacqueline Loos (2020) give an overview on the potentials and pitfalls of employment of unmanned aerial systems, also known as drones, for biodiversity conservation.

Will drones play a larger role in the collection of data for conservation management in the future?  

The idea of collecting data from a bird’s eye view is not new to conservation: Remote sensing techniques have been applied for many decades. First, visual observations were carried out from airplanes. Later, satellites were used to capture images of habitats and landscapes. However, the capacity to accurately identify and characterize small objects is limited. Because the spatial resolution of data derived from satellites mostly lies in the range of 0.1–1.0 km. Since more detailed images allow for a broader scope of application, conservation researchers are increasingly interested in new technology that increases resolution.    

Besides generating data with a spatial resolution within the range of fractions of a centimeter – far below those of the commonly used satellites – the use of drones offers other substantial advantages. First, unmanned aerial systems are characterized by their high flexibility. From flight altitude over acquisition timing to weather and light conditions, drones can be precisely programmed and thus adjusted to given circumstances. This way, one tool can supply different sets of data. In addition to the technology’s great versatility, the data collected is easily translatable into maps as the imagery is georeferenced. This simplifies further usages of the gathered information and is especially relevant for inaccessible areas. Finally, staff safety profits from the less risky collection procedures and financial resources are spared as the running costs of light, small-sized drones are typically much lower compared to manned aerial surveys.            

In spite of the numerous advantages and possibilities, application rates of drones in conservation remain low because they are also subject to several downsides. One key element of scientific research is sound methodology. In the case of drones, there are currently few to no standardized protocols, generalizable recommendations or validated statistical analyses available. This diminishes data accuracy and reduces the willingness to make use of the technology. Additionally, limited flight duration and speed, financial expenses due to the need for highly skilled staff and vehicle transportation to the research area, application restrictions under certain temperature and visibility conditions, and problems with data transferability pose challenges that need to be addressed for drones to considerably benefit conservation. Apart from technical aspects, policies and regulations further complicate drone usage. Connected to policy constraints are jurisdictional and ethical questions on data ownership, security and misuse.

Drawing on insights generated in their current research in and around protected areas in eastern and southern Africa, the authors outline technological and methodological improvements necessary to address present shortcomings and make drones more useful for conservation. Development needs to include the formulation of guidelines and standardized protocols to support reproducible and accurate data collection in different environments, the inclusion of advanced technologies for in-flight power generation accompanied by more aerodynamic designs to facilitate longer flight ranges, automated data extraction and analysis supported by artificial intelligence and machine learning, and the application of new remote sensing technology in the making. These measures could improve data quality, cost-efficiency and application range which would ultimately result in wider acceptance by conservation managers.

While many questions surrounding the application of drones in conservation management remain unanswered, Fust and Loos (2020) consider drones a promising tool for data collection. The authors conclude that although drones may not serve as panaceas for monitoring land use changes and wildlife trends, they can act as additional data collection tools to support conservation management decisions.

To read the paper by Fust and Loos (2020) follow this link:

If you want to find out more about how Jacqueline Loos is planning to use drones in her research in sub-Saharan Africa take a look at this video:

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