Drones (also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles – UAVs) have become an increasingly popular conservation tool in the last decade due to advances in technology that have made drones more widely accessible and affordable for conservationists and researchers.
Drone usage is steadily growing for a wide variety of conservation purposes, wildlife monitoring, habitat restoration, data collection, and protected area surveillance, among many others. However, effective training, planning, and preparation are essential to minimise harm to wildlife, humans, and the environment.
Before flying a drone for the first time, there are five key things that you must do: 1) Learn how to fly your drone safely, 2) Check your permissions, permits and rules of the airspace, 3) Consider what and how many batteries you will need 4) Consider your storage requirements and 5) Conduct a risk-assessment and pre-flight checklist. By taking these steps, you can reduce harm or damage to wildlife, humans, or the environment and achieve your conservation project goals safely and effectively.
There are many successful examples of drones being widely used for wildlife monitoring, protected area surveillance, habitat restoration and the collection of footage of landscapes (and wildlife!) for documentaries and other conservation-focused storytelling. In one example of a successful drone use case study, Fauna and Flora International (FFI) in Ache, Indonesia used drones to monitor the location of Sumatran elephants (Elephas maximus sumatranus) and rapidly responded to minimise conflict with community farms, support forest patrols, and produce high-quality information and maps of community forest areas.
Successful implementation of drones for this conservation work requires effective training, planning, and preparation. Whether you’re an experienced drone pilot or a beginner to drones, you should never go out and fly your drone without preparation, as this can be dangerous and lead to various issues such as breaking regulations, animal welfare, privacy concerns and potential damage to property or your drone! Preparation and planning for using your drone in your conservation project are essential to reduce harm to wildlife, humans and the environment.
Therefore, here are the top five things that you need to do before flying your drone:
1. Learn how to fly a drone safely
The last thing you’ll want to do, after spending a lot of money on your drone, is to damage, crash or lose it on its first use! Flying a drone without any sort of training is reckless (and possibly illegal in many regions and scenarios). That’s why, whether you’ve never flown a drone before or have flown them many times, you should get some training to make sure that you can operate a drone safely for your conservation project. Also, having a little bit of knowledge about how a drone works, and how to set one up and fly it in different surroundings will be very helpful.
There are a variety of ways to learn to fly a drone safely, such as through drone flying course providers, written guides, books and YouTube videos. For example, the DJI YouTube Channel provides regular training videos.
You can also find more tailored resources depending on your project’s needs, such as capturing photographic data and aerial footage, thermal imagery, or even capturing biologging data from the air. Learning how to fly a drone safely is important to reduce harm or damage to wildlife, humans, or the environment. Though drones can be a non-invasive way to observe, track, and monitor wildlife from a distance, drones can sometimes incite behaviour changes and cause stress to the animal if flown too closely. To prevent harm or damage, make sure that you understand the regulations and guidelines for drone use in your area, choose an appropriate location to fly, and maintain a safe distance from people, animals, and other objects.
2. Check the Permissions, Permits and Rules of Airspace
In addition to learning how to fly a drone, you need to know the laws and regulations. Each country has its own laws and regulations governing flying a drone. It's important to research and follow these laws to avoid any legal issues. For example, in the UK there are key rules such as not exceeding an altitude of 120m above the ground, always maintaining visual contact with the drone and avoiding flight in restricted airspaces around airports. You should check government resources and the Civil Aviation Authority website of the destination where you wish to fly your drone to reduce your risk of having your drone confiscated or paying a fine!
Moreover, you might need permission to fly a drone over private land, federal (government) land, and near protected areas or animals. Make sure to obtain the permissions in a written agreement that outlines the terms and conditions of flying your drone. You can search the drone laws, rules and regulations by country or city on websites such as Drone-Laws, UVA Systems International, and Drone-Made, as well as sign up for alerts to be notified if the rules change.
Getting all the permits you need can take some time; therefore, you should factor any costs and time of obtaining any permissions into your budget and timeline to reduce the risk of significant delays to your project. My final tip about permits is to always carry all your paperwork with you along with your drone, including your receipt of purchase, insurance information and permissions for smooth drone flying.
Drone insurance can be beneficial in case of damage, loss, or theft of your drone. It can cover liability for claims to third parties, such as if the drone were to collide with a car or property, as well as damage to the drone itself. Having insurance can help prevent delays to your project caused by unexpected issues. You may also need to show proof of insurance to obtain a permit and permission to fly a drone within certain countries or over private land.
3. Assess if you have enough batteries
To ensure that you collect all the data you require for your conservation project, you need to have enough batteries. Even for one flight survey, whether that be for wildlife population tracking using thermal imaging, collecting LIDAR data to understand more about forest structure, or for visual data collection or your conservation work, you’ll most definitely need multiple sets of batteries to get the necessary shot. You wouldn’t want to run out of power mid-way through your forest survey and not be able to capture the LIDAR data and aerial shots of the forest that you need.
Drones typically run on lithium-polymer (Li-Po or LiPo) batteries. Although they are generally safe, mishandling or accidents can sometimes lead to issues such as unexpected burning. If you’re planning to take them on a plane, you need to check the travel regulations to ensure that you’re able to take them abroad with you. Moreover, you need to ensure that the batteries are transported safely, as well as charged and stored correctly before, during and after your flight. You can read more about best practices for maintaining and safe use of your drone batteries here:
- Pilot Institute, Best Practices for Managing Your Drone Data
- Drone Blog, Done Battery Care (All you need to know)
- John Peltier Photography, Propper Drone Battey Storage & Care to Maximise Life and Performance
4. Determine if you have enough storage
As well as checking that you have enough batteries, you’ll need to check if you have enough storage for your drone data. You’ll need to arrange and decide where you will store your drone data whether you’re working in forests in Vietnam's Pu Mat National Park or with elephants migrating across Botswana's Okavango. Proper data management is critical when working with drone data, which includes both the sensor data (e.g. images, point clouds) and the metadata (e.g. flight logs).
When in the field, to ensure the safety of your drone data, use an SD card and external hard drive, and then, when you have internet access, immediately upload the data to the cloud for backup. To try and keep this simple, always remember to follow the rule of three and always back up your data in three places: SD card, hard drive and in the cloud! If you collect ground control points, GPS data to georeference your drone data or any metadata (e/g flying conditions) be sure to secure these in multiple locations too.
If you have permission, you might also consider uploading your drone data to an open-access drone data cloud storage platform such as GeoNadir, which you can also use to process your imagery into high-quality georeferenced orthomosaics. You can learn more about managing your drone storage here:
5. Conduct a Risk Assessment and Use a Pre-flight checklist
To avoid causing damage or harm to wildlife, people, property, and your own tools as discussed earlier, conducting a risk assessment is useful for identifying potential hazards and assessing the ability to fly a drone in a particular area. Measures can be taken to reduce these hazards, ensuring the safety of the drone flight. This includes selecting a safe flying location, ensuring proper equipment and maintenance, checking weather conditions, flying a safe distance away from obstacles and wildlife, and following all applicable regulations and guidelines. Understanding risk and incorporating the most responsible choices and precautions into your work is critical to your success as a drone pilot. You can check out the examples of drone risk assessments to help build your own for your drone flight:
To ensure that you completed all the necessary tasks outlined above (and more!) before the beginning of your drone flight, it is recommended to create and follow a drone pre-flight checklist. This list should include crucial steps like confirming the presence and proper charging of all equipment, identifying and addressing any potential issues before take-off and ensuring the safety of the flight through a thorough risk assessment. The checklist should encompass tasks to be completed on the day of the flight, as well as immediately before and during the flight. By following a pre-flight checklist, drone pilots can reduce the likelihood of preventable issues, establish good safety habits for their work, and promote responsible drone use within conservation projects. Here are some great examples of pre-flight checklists:
- Safety Culture, Drone Pre-flight Checklist
- Heliguy, Pre-flight checklist
- Drone Deploy, Pre-flight checklist
Moreover, you could also undertake a drone safety course, such as the Drone Safety for Managers in the UK course by Future Learn and the Institute for Drone Technology.