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



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A drone image of a breeding colony of Greater Crested Terns. Researchers used plastic bird decoys to replicate this species in an experiment that compared different ways of counting wildlife.
Jarrod Hodgson, CC BY-ND

Jarrod Hodgson, University of Adelaide; Aleks Terauds, and Lian Pin Koh, University of Adelaide

Ecologists are increasingly using drones to gather data. Scientists have used remotely piloted aircraft to estimate the health of fragile polar mosses, to measure and predict the mass of leopard seals, and even to collect whale snot. Drones have also been labelled as game-changers for wildlife population monitoring.

But once the take-off dust settles, how do we know if drones produce accurate data? Perhaps even more importantly, how do the data compare to those gathered using a traditional ground-based approach?

To answer these questions we created the #EpicDuckChallenge, which involved deploying thousands of plastic replica ducks on an Adelaide beach, and then testing various methods of tallying them up.

As we report today in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution, drones do indeed generate accurate wildlife population data – even more accurate, in fact, than those collected the old-fashioned way.

Jarrod Hodgson standing in one of the replica colonies of seabirds constructed for the #EpicDuckChallenge.
S. Andriolo

Assessing the accuracy of wildlife count data is hard. We can’t be sure of the true number of animals present in a group of wild animals. So, to overcome this uncertainty, we created life-sized, replica seabird colonies, each with a known number of individuals.

From the optimum vantage and in ideal weather conditions, experienced wildlife spotters independently counted the colonies from the ground using binoculars and telescopes. At the same time, a drone captured photographs of each colony from a range of heights. Citizen scientists then used these images to tally the number of animals they could see.

Counts of birds in drone-derived imagery were better than those made by wildlife observers on the ground. The drone approach was more precise and more accurate – it produced counts that were consistently closer to the true number of individuals.

Comparing the vantages: drone-derived photographs and the ground counter’s view.
J. Hodgson

The difference between the results was not trivial. Drone-derived data were between 43% and 96% more accurate than ground counts. The variation was due to how many pixels represented each bird, which in turn is related to the height that the drone was flown and the resolution of the camera.

This wasn’t a surprise. The experienced ground counters did well, but the drone’s vantage point was superior. Observing photos taken from above meant the citizen scientists did not have to contend with obscured birds that often occur during ground counts. The imagery also benefited the citizen scientists as they could digitally review their counts as many times as they needed. This reduced the likelihood of both missing an individual and counting an individual more than once.

The scientists were assisted by many volunteers, without whom the #EpicDuckChallenge would not have been possible.
J. Hodgson

However, even though it proved to be more accurate, making manual digital counts is still tedious and time-consuming. To address this, we developed a computer algorithm in the hope that it could further improve efficiency without diminishing data quality. And it did.

We delineated a proportion of birds in each colony to train the algorithm to recognise how the animal of interest appeared in the imagery. We found that using 10% training data was sufficient to produce a colony count that was comparable to that of a human reviewing the entire scene.

This computerisation can reduce the time needed to process data, providing the opportunity to cut the costs and resources needed to survey wildlife populations. When combined with the efficiencies drones provide for surveying sites that are hard to access on foot, these savings may be considerable.

Using drone monitoring in the field

Our results have important implications for a range of species. We think they are especially relevant to aggregating birds, including seabirds like albatrosses, surface nesting penguins and frigatebirds, as well as colonial nesting waterbirds like pelicans.

Other types of animals that are easily seen from above, including hauled-out seals and dugongs, are highly suited to drone monitoring. The nests or tracks of animals, such as orangutans and turtles, can also be used to infer presence.

Additional experiments will be useful to assess the ability of drones to survey animals that prefer to stay hidden and those within complex habitats. Such assessments are of interest to us, and researchers around the globe, with current investigations focused on wildlife such as arboreal mammals and cetaceans.

We are still learning about how wildlife react to the presence of drones, and more research is required to quantify these responses in a range of species and environments. The results will help to refine and improve drone monitoring protocols so that drones have minimal impact on wildlife. This is particularly important for species that are prone to disturbance, and where close proximity is not possible or desirable.




Read more:
How drones can help fight the war on shark attacks


The world is rapidly changing, with many negative outcomes for wildlife. Technology like drones can help scientists and managers gather data fast enough to enable timely assessment of the implications of these changes.

The ConversationWhen monitoring wildlife, increasing the accuracy and precision of animal surveys gives us more confidence in our population estimates. This provides a stronger evidence base on which to make management decisions or policy changes. For species and ecosystems threatened with extinction or irreparable damage, such speedy action could be a literal lifeline.

Jarrod Hodgson, PhD Candidate, University of Adelaide; Aleks Terauds, Senior Research Scientist / Section Head, and Lian Pin Koh, Professor, University of Adelaide

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.

A guide to using drones to study wildlife: first, do no harm


Jarrod Hodgson and Lian Pin Koh

Technological advances have provided many benefits for environmental research. Sensors on southern elephant seals have been used to map the Southern Ocean, while tracking devices have given us a new view of mass animal migrations, from birds to zebras.

Miniaturisation of electronics and improvements in reliability and affordability mean that consumer drones (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs) are now improving scientific research in a host of areas. And they are growing more popular for wildlife management, as well as research.

Wildlife drones can be used in many different ways, from small multi-rotor units that can scare invasive birds away from crops, to fixed-wing aircraft that fly above rainforests to spot orangutan nests. UAVs have also been shown to provide more precise data than traditional ground-based techniques when it comes to monitoring seabird colonies.

Other industries, from mining to window-cleaning, are looking at using drone technology. Some forecasts predict that the global market for commercial applications of UAVs will be valued at more than US$127 billion. Given their usefulness in the biologist’s toolkit, the uptake of UAVs for environmental monitoring is likely to continue.

But this proliferation of drones raises questions about how best to regulate the use of these aircraft, and how to ensure that wildlife do not come to harm.

A UAV-mounted camera provides an aerial view of a Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus) in North Sumatra.
L. P. Koh

Wildlife disturbance

Biologists carrying out field studies are typically interested in animals’ natural state, or how their behaviour changes when conditions are altered. So it is important to know whether the UAVs disturb the animals and, if so, exactly how.

Of course, different species in different environments are likely to have very different responses to the presence of a UAV. This will also depend on the type of UAV and how it is used. Our current understanding of wildlife responses is limited.

A team of French and South African biologists observed the reaction of semi-captive and wild birds to UAVs. They found that the approach angle had a significant impact on the birds’ reaction, but approach speed, UAV colour and flight repetition did not.

In polar regions, where UAVs may be particularly useful for sampling inaccessible areas, researchers found that Adélie penguins were more alert when a UAV was in range, particularly at low altitudes.

These studies, and similar observational studies on other animals besides birds, provide an initial understanding of wildlife behaviour. But the animals’ behaviour is only one aspect of their response – we still need to know what happens to their physiology.

Cardiac bio-loggers fitted to a small number of free-roaming American black bears in northwestern Minnesota have shown that UAV flights increased the bears’ heart rates by as much as 123 beats per minute. Even an individual in its winter hibernation den showed stress responses to a UAV flying above.

Interestingly, the bears rarely showed any behavioural response to the drones. This shows that just because animals do not appear visually disturbed, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not stressed.

A code of practice

We have developed a code of best practice, published today in the journal Current Biology, which seeks to mitigate or alleviate potential UAV disturbance to wildlife. It advocates the precautionary principle in lieu of sufficient evidence, encouraging researchers to recognise that wildlife responses are varied, can be hard to detect, and could have severe consequences.

Jarrod Hodgson launches a fixed-wing UAV on Macquarie Island.
J. Hodgson

It also provides practical recommendations. The code encourages the use of equipment that minimises the stimulus to wildlife. Using minimum-disturbance flight practices (such as avoiding threatening approach trajectories or sporadic flight movements) is advised. The code also recognises the importance of following civil aviation rules and effective maintenance and training schedules, and using animal ethics processes to provide oversight to UAV experiments.

The code isn’t just food for thought for biologists. It is relevant to all UAV users and regulators, from commercial aerial videographers to hobbyists. Unintentionally or otherwise, such users may find themselves piloting drones close to wildlife.

Our code urges the UAV community to be responsible operators. It encourages awareness of the results of flying in different environments and the use of flight practices that result in minimum wildlife disturbance.

Low-impact conservation

As researchers continue to develop and refine UAV wildlife monitoring techniques, research that quantifies disturbance should be prioritised. This research will need to be multi-faceted, because responses could vary between species or individuals, as well as over time and in different environments. Greater knowledge could help us to draw up species-specific guidelines for drone use, to minimise disturbance on a case-by-case basis.

UAVs are a useful wildlife monitoring tool. We need to proactively develop and implement low-impact monitoring techniques. Doing so will expand our technological arsenal in the battle to manage Earth’s precious and increasingly threatened wildlife.

The Conversation

Jarrod Hodgson, PhD Candidate and Lian Pin Koh, Associate Professor

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