article / 8 July 2016

Can Drones Live up to the Hype?

Drones are being explored for a spectrum of applications in conservation that include mapping, biodiversity inventories, antipoaching patrols, wildlife tracking and fire monitoring. However, questions remain about whether drones will become an essential part of the conservation toolkit, or sidelined as simply a fun toy with limited practical use. WWF-UK's Conservation Technology Advisor, Paul Glover-Kapfer, has some thoughts on the future of drones.  

I have a confession to make – I was wrong about drones. While I thought they might have some limited application in conservation, I was convinced they were overhyped. I couldn’t imagine how drones could possibly deliver on all the promises made by their proponents, as there seemed to be too many technological and financial barriers to their ever being more than a gimmicky tool useful for gaining headlines but making little actual difference in the conservation sphere. But now I am less sure, and ironically my uncertainty comes from two cases in which drones were shown to be less effective than more traditional methods.

In the interest of anonymity, I am able to provide the specific details for only one of the examples I describe. However, I can provide some of the results from both cases that highlight why I think drones will become an increasingly important component of the conservationist’s toolbox.

In both cases, the drones were used to collect aerial imagery for monitoring purposes, so whilst I believe the results are broadly applicable bear in mind that what I am describing amounts to n = 1. In the first case, a drone equipped with a camera was used to count the number of orang-utan nests on Sabah, and these counts were compared to those made by ground observers and helicopter surveys. Results indicated that the drones greatly outperformed helicopter survey, with the latter detecting approximately 30% as many nests as drones. Results also indicated that whilst drones outperformed helicopters, ground surveys were nearly 50% more effective at detecting orang-utan nests than camera-equipped drones.

A photo-collage of orangutan nests in SE Asian rain forests taken by cameras on board Conservation Drones.

Photo Credit: Lian Pin Koh / Conservation Drones 

The second case also involved a drone equipped with a high definition camera to collect aerial imagery for the purpose of wildlife monitoring, and like the first case results indicated that while the drone was able to deliver valuable data, the same data could have been collected at less cost via ground surveys.

The obvious question thus arising from the results of these case studies and my professed scepticism is why I now believe drones are set to become more valuable to conservation. The answer comes down to this – camera traps. When camera traps were first applied for conservation and research, they were bulky, homemade monstrosities that were beyond the technical expertise of most. Fast forward 15 years, and now camera traps are sleek, well-designed and relatively inexpensive. And why is this? Arguably, the reason for these improvements in camera traps is the wide commercial consumer base, which has driven their rapid development and driven down costs. It is this commercial consumer base that camera traps and drones have in common that makes me believe that the drone quality will rapidly improve while costs decline. And with these improvements, drone performance at detecting orang-utan nests and delivering conservation results will only improve. Colour me a drone convert.

About the Author

Paul Glover-Kapfer has been working in academic and applied wildlife conservation for 12 years, during which he has been extremely fortunate to travel to distant corners of our planet and work with dynamic and dedicated professionals struggling to solve compelling problems. He is pragmatic in the truest sense of the word – he is interested in applying technology to solve conservation problems, when appropriate, but cognizant that technology is not a panacea. His current position with WWF-UK focuses on identifying opportunities for technology to aid conservation in meaningful ways. To accomplish this he facilitates communication of conservation needs to technologists and technological capacity to conservationists, assists in determining when and where technologies are appropriate, and seeks to apply those technologies in new ways to achieve meaningful results.

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