From drone swarms to tree batteries, new tech is revolutionising ecology and conservation



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Eyes in the sky: drone footage is becoming a vital tool for monitoring ecosystems.
Deakin Marine Mapping Group

Euan Ritchie, Deakin University and Blake Allan, Deakin University

Understanding Earth’s species and ecosystems is a monumentally challenging scientific pursuit. But with the planet in the grip of its sixth mass extinction event, it has never been a more pressing priority.

To unlock nature’s secrets, ecologists turn to a variety of scientific instruments and tools. Sometimes we even repurpose household items, with eyebrow-raising results – whether it’s using a tea strainer to house ants, or tackling botfly larvae with a well-aimed dab of nail polish.

But there are many more high-tech options becoming available for studying the natural world. In fact, ecology is on the cusp of a revolution, with new and emerging technologies opening up new possibilities for insights into nature and applications for conserving biodiversity.

Our study, published in the journal Ecosphere, tracks the progress of this technological development. Here we highlight a few examples of these exciting advances.

Tiny tracking sensors

Electronically recording the movement of animals was first made possible by VHF radio telemetry in the 1960s. Since then even more species, especially long-distance migratory animals such as caribou, shearwaters and sea turtles, have been tracked with the help of GPS and other satellite data.

But our understanding of what affects animals’ movement and other behaviours, such as hunting, is being advanced further still by the use of “bio-logging” – equipping the animals themselves with miniature sensors.

Bio-logging is giving us new insight into the lives of animals such as mountain lions.

Many types of miniature sensors have now been developed, including accelerometers, gyroscopes, magnetometers, micro cameras, and barometers. Together, these devices make it possible to track animals’ movements with unprecedented precision. We can also now measure the “physiological cost” of behaviours – that is, whether an animal is working particularly hard to reach a destination, or within a particular location, to capture and consume its prey.

Taken further, placing animal movement paths within spatially accurate 3D-rendered (computer-generated) environments will allow ecologists to examine how individuals respond to each other and their surroundings.

These devices could also help us determine whether animals are changing their behaviour in response to threats such as invasive species or habitat modification. In turn, this could tell us what conservation measures might work best.

Autonomous vehicles

Remotely piloted vehicles, including drones, are now a common feature of our skies, land, and water. Beyond their more typical recreational uses, ecologists are deploying autonomous vehicles to measure environments, observe species, and assess changes through time, all with a degree of detail that was never previously possible.

There are many exciting applications of drones in conservation, including surveying cryptic and difficult to reach wildlife such as orangutans

Coupling autonomous vehicles with sensors (such as thermal imaging) now makes it easier to observe rare, hidden or nocturnal species. It also potentially allows us to catch poachers red-handed, which could help to protect animals like rhinoceros, elephants and pangolins.

3D printing

Despite 3D printing having been pioneered in the 1980s, we are only now beginning to realise the potential uses for ecological research. For instance, it can be used to make cheap, lightweight tracking devices that can be fitted onto animals. Or it can be used to create complex and accurate models of plants, animals or other organisms, for use in behavioural studies.

3D printing is shedding new light on animal behaviour, including mate choice.

Bio-batteries

Keeping electronic equipment running in the field can be a challenge. Conventional batteries have limited life spans, and can contain toxic chemicals. Solar power can help with some of these problems, but not in dimly lit areas, such as deep in the heart of rainforests.

“Bio-batteries” may help to overcome this challenge. They convert naturally occurring sources of chemical energy, such as starch, into electricity using enzymes. “Plugging-in” to trees may allow sensors and other field equipment to be powered cheaply for a long time in places without sun or access to mains electricity.

Combining technologies

All of the technologies described above sit on a continuum from previous (now largely mainstream) technological solutions, to new and innovative ones now being trialled.

Illustrative timeline of new technologies in ecology and environmental science. Source and further details at DOI: 10.1002/ecs2.2163.
Euan Ritchie

Emerging technologies are exciting by themselves, but when combined with one another they can revolutionise ecological research. Here is a modified exerpt from our paper:

Imagine research stations fitted with remote cameras and acoustic recorders equipped with low-power computers for image and animal call recognition, powered by trees via bio-batteries. These devices could use low-power, long-range telemetry both to communicate with each other in a network, potentially tracking animal movement from one location to the next, and to transmit information to a central location. Swarms of drones working together could then be deployed to map the landscape and collect data from a central location wirelessly, without landing. The drones could then land in a location with an internet connection and transfer data into cloud-based storage, accessible from anywhere in the world.

Visualisation of a future smart research environment, integrating multiple ecological technologies. The red lines indicate data transfer via the Internet of things (IoT), in which multiple technologies are communicating with one another. The gray lines indicate more traditional data transfer. Broken lines indicate data transferred over long distances. (1) Bio-batteries; (2) The Internet of things (IoT); (3) Swarm theory; (4) Long-range low-power telemetry; (5) Solar power; (6) Low-power computer; (7) Data transfer via satellite; and (8) Bioinformatics. Source and further details at DOI: 10.1002/ecs2.2163.
Euan Ritchie

These advancements will not only generate more accurate research data, but should also minimise the disturbance to species and ecosystems in the process.

Not only will this minimise the stress to animals and the inadvertent spread of diseases, but it should also provide a more “natural” picture of how plants, animals and other organisms interact.




Read more:
‘Epic Duck Challenge’ shows drones can outdo people at surveying wildlife


Realising the techno-ecological revolution will require better collaboration across disciplines and industries. Ecologists should ideally also be exposed to relevant technology-based training (such as engineering or IT) and industry placements early in their careers.

The ConversationSeveral initiatives, such as Wildlabs, the Conservation Technology Working Group and TechnEcology, are already addressing these needs. But we are only just at the start of what’s ultimately possible.

Euan Ritchie, Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University and Blake Allan, , Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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How the internet is reshaping World Heritage and our experience of it



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Many more people experience World Heritage sites like the Sydney Opera House in digital form than physically visit them.
Author provided

Cristina Garduño Freeman, University of Melbourne

Most people’s experience of World Heritage is now a digital one. Whether it’s on social media, an official website, Wikipedia or a simple Google search, this shift in “visitation” means many people who engage with World Heritage will never physically travel to the actual site.

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee is the top-tier organisation for the protection of natural and cultural heritage. To date, 1,073 properties have been listed for their significance to all of mankind.

The list includes many well-known ancient monuments like the Pyramids of Giza, and the Parthenon, and natural sites like Uluru Kata-Tjuta. Less frequently recognised are industrial sites like the Rideau Canal and contemporary works of architecture such as the Sydney Opera House.

The Sydney Opera House was listed in 2007, not only for its architectural and technical achievements as a masterpiece of modernism, but curiously also for its status as a world-famous iconic building. Digital visits to the Sydney Opera House now outnumber in-person visits by 16 to 1.

Everyday digital engagements with the Sydney Opera House online.
Author provided

Digital engagement has a very broad reach

By 2019, half of the world’s people will have access to the internet. For most, the internet is essential to everyday life. The impact of this exponential growth of the internet on people’s engagement with World Heritage has been overlooked. Yet it has the potential to tell us about the close connections people have with some of our most esteemed places.

Managing organisations are beginning to see the social and economic value of digital audiences. In 2013 the Sydney Opera House reported a digital reach of 128 million. Deloitte estimated this to be worth A$59 million. It’s the result of a media strategy to develop digital content, social media engagement, and participatory online events.

The official media channels of the Sydney Opera House.
Author provided

But this is not the whole story. What about all the things people do online outside of the Sydney Opera House’s formal social media channels?

We know that not everyone actively posts pictures, edits Wikipedia, or writes a blog. The 1% rule describes online participation. For every person who actively contributes content, nine others will like it. Another 90 will simply view the originally posted content.

Adding up the number of followers across the official Sydney Opera House social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube) gives us an immediate audience of about 1.67 million. Using the 1% rule, this extrapolates to 167 million, which is similar to Deloitte’s 2013 figure. This is almost seven times Australia’s population and equivalent to 2% of the world population. World Heritage has never been so visible!

But numbers are not the only story here. While impressive, they don’t tell us how people feel connected with such places.

What can the internet tell us?

My recent research investigates online forms of participation with the Sydney Opera House. Combining digital ethnography and data analytics enables us to better understand the social value of architectural icons and the implications for World Heritage.

Popular depictions of the Sydney Opera House posted online include photographs, cakes, artworks, children’s books, Lego, other buildings and hats. By examining these we can understand people’s values and how they engage with this World Heritage site in everyday activities and in the process reshape the narratives being told.

Six ways in which people engage with the Sydney Opera House revealed through their online participation.
Author provided

Close examination of online posts and activities reveals communities of people passionate about the Sydney Opera House. Participatory platforms such as Wikipedia and Flickr are filled with people dedicated to telling a comprehensive historically and visually accurate story about this place. But people are also discerning; they highlight that a single building cannot fully represent their city.

Brands and organisations also reference the form of the Sydney Opera House in their logo types to gain cultural capital. Examples include the Sydney Swans, Sydney Mardi Gras and the Sydney 2000 Olympics. The varied references to this place in many different contexts show its power to create a social connection that transcends borders.

What are the implications for World Heritage?

A World Heritage listing brings an increase in visibility and visits. A listed site gains international recognition and cultural status as well as economic benefits through tourism.

In the decade since the Sydney Opera House became a World Heritage site, annual visitors have doubled from 4 million to 8.2 million, audiences have grown from 1.2 to 1.5 million, and tours of the building have increased by a third.

But World Heritage status comes with a need to preserve and conserve the listed site. For the Sydney Opera House, this means maintaining its iconic status.

My research demonstrates how people’s participation through popular culture helps to maintain this iconic status. Through posting pictures on Instagram, or making “opera-house-shaped things” and sharing them online, people integrate this icon into their daily lives. But this also challenges the building’s copyright, which underpins corporate partnerships that provide funding in exchange for affiliation.

Further, tourism can threaten the conservation of World Heritage properties. Too many visitors and excessive development puts pressure on local communities, management and facilities.

International visibility can also make properties targets of political destruction. This raises questions about how World Heritage status is given and its implications for conservation in an increasingly digitally mediated world.

The ConversationThe Sydney Opera House always held the promise of transformation of Sydney. Now global online communities are transforming it. In our inevitable digital future, what role people will play in ascribing and maintaining World Heritage status?

Cristina Garduño Freeman, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Australian Centre for Architectural History, Urban and Cultural Heritage (ACAHUCH), University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Drones help scientists check the health of Antarctic mosses, revealing climate change clues



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Mosses are sensitive to even minor changes in their living conditions.
Sharon Robinson, Author provided

Zbyněk Malenovský, University of Tasmania and Arko Lucieer, University of Tasmania

Drones are helping scientists check the health of Antarctic mosses, revealing clues on the pace of climate change.

The scientists say their method could be used for similar research in other harsh environments like desert or alpine regions.

Mosses are sensitive to even minor changes in their living conditions, and scientists traditionally tramped through difficult terrain to collect data on them.

Using the specially-designed drones is faster, kinder to the environment and delivers detailed images that satellite imagery cannot match.

Drones also allow to map much larger areas than previously possible, showing how the moss health responds to meltwater in real time.

The ConversationThese methods could be used for similar research in other harsh environments like desert or alpine regions.

Zbyněk Malenovský, Researcher in Remote Sensing of Vegetation, University of Tasmania and Arko Lucieer, Associate Professor in Remote Sensing, University of Tasmania

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Drones and wildlife – working to co-exist


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Researchers have reviewed evidence for wildlife disturbance and current drone policies and found that the law is playing catch-up with emerging technology.
Pip Wallace, CC BY-ND

Pip Wallace, University of Waikato; Iain White, University of Waikato, and Ross Martin, University of Waikato

The drone market is booming and it is changing the way we use airspace, with some unforeseen consequences.

The uptake of remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) has been swift. But despite their obvious benefits, concerns are growing about impacts on wildlife.

In our research we investigate whether regulation is keeping pace with the speed of technological change. We argue that it doesn’t, and we suggest that threatened species might need extra protection to ensure they aren’t harmed by drones.

RPA management

Drones are useful tools for conservation biologists. They allow them to survey inaccessible terrain and assist with many challenging tasks, from seeding forests to collecting whale snot.

But researchers are also discovering that RPAs have negative impacts on wildlife, ranging from temporary disturbances to fatal collisions.

Disturbance from vehicles and other human activity are known to affect wildlife, but with the speed that drones have entered widespread use, their effects are only just starting to be studied.

So far, the regulatory response has focused squarely on risks to human health, safety and privacy, with wildlife impacts only rarely taken into account, and even then usually in a limited way.


Read more: The age of drones has arrived quicker than the laws that govern them


It is not uncommon for regulatory gaps to arise when new technology is introduced. The rapid growth of drone technology raises a series of questions for environmental law and management.

We have reviewed evidence for wildlife disturbance and current drone policies and found that the law is playing catch-up with emerging technology.

Impacts on wildlife range from disturbance to fatal collisions.
Pip Wallace, CC BY-ND

This is particularly important in New Zealand, where many threatened species live outside protected reserves. Coastal areas are of particular concern. They provide habitat for numerous threatened and migrating species but also experience high rates of urban development and recreational activity. Different species also respond very differently to the invasion of their airspace.

Where “flying for fun” and pizza delivery by drone combine with insufficient control, there is potential for unanticipated consequences to wildlife.

RPA and red tape

When competing interests collide, regulation requires particular care. Any rules on RPAs need to cater for a wide range of users, with varying skills and purposes, and enable beneficial applications while protecting wildlife.

There are strong social and economic drivers for the removal of red tape. Australia and the United States have introduced permissive regimes for lower-risk use, including recreational activity. In New Zealand, RPAs are considered as aircraft and controlled by civil aviation legislation.


Read more: New drone rules: with more eyes in the sky, expect less privacy


Wildlife disturbance, or other impacts on the environment, are not specifically mentioned in these rules and control options depend on existing wildlife law.

The lack of consideration of wildlife impacts in civil aviation rules creates a gap, which is accompanied by an absence of policy guidance. As a consequence, the default position for limiting RPA operations comes from the general requirement for property owner consent.

RPA and spatial controls

RPA operators wanting to fly over conservation land have to get a permit from the Department of Conservation, which has recognised wildlife disturbance as a potential issue.

On other public land, we found that local authorities take a patchy and inconsistent approach to RPA activity, with limited consideration of effects on wildlife. On private land, efforts to control impacts to wildlife depend on the knowledge of property owners.

Protection of wildlife from RPA impacts is further confounded by limitations of legislation that governs the protection of wildlife and resource use and development. The Wildlife Act 1953 needs updating to provide more effective control of disturbance effects to species.

Marine mammals get some protection from aircraft disturbance under species-specific legislation. Other than that, aircraft are exempt from regulation under the Resource Management Act, which only requires noise control for airports. As a result, tools normally used to control spatial impacts, such as protective zoning, setbacks and buffers for habitat and species are not available.

This makes sense for aircraft flying at 8,000m or more, but drones use space differently, are controlled locally, and generate local effects. It is also clear that equipment choices and methods of RPA operation can reduce risks to wildlife.

Keeping drones out of sensitive spaces

Dunedin City Council in New Zealand recently approved a bylaw banning drones from ecologically sensitive areas. This is a good start but we think a more consistent and universal approach is required to protect threatened species.

As a starter, all RPA operations should be guided by specific policy and made available on civil aviation websites, addressing impacts to wildlife and RPA methods of operation. In addition, we advocate for research into regulatory measures requiring, where appropriate, distance setbacks of RPA operations from threatened and at risk species.

Distance setbacks are already used in the protection of marine mammals from people, aircraft and other sources of disturbance. Setbacks benefit species by acting as a mobile shield in contrast to a fixed area protection.

The ConversationCongestion of space is a condition of modern life, and the forecast exponential growth of RPA in the environment indicates that space will become even more contested in future, both in the air and on the ground. We argue that stronger measures that recognise the potential impacts on wildlife, how this may differ from species to species, and how this may be concentrated in certain locations, are required to deliver better protection for threatened species.

Pip Wallace, Senior lecturer in Environmental Planning, University of Waikato; Iain White, Professor of Environmental Planning, University of Waikato, and Ross Martin, Doctoral Candidate (Coastal Ecology), University of Waikato

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.