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New drones to map endangered habitats

Some researchers are hoping that soon, remote-controlled airplanes will be more than just toys and instead serve as potent conservation tools.

Two conservation scientists have equipped a remote-controlled aircraft with cameras and GPS to gather images of hard-to-reach landscapes for conservation efforts. Lian Pin Koh, an ecologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, and Serge Wich, a biologist at the University of Zurich and research director at international conservation nonprofit PanEco, hope to use their conservation drone to assist the mapping of deforestation and to help count endangered species in places with difficult terrain, such as parts of Africa and Indonesia. Their work has the potential to enhance conservation projects currently underway at Duke.

“It could be hugely helpful in wildlife conservation work,” Emily Myron, who will earn a master’s degree in environmental management this May, said.

The drone technology offers a cheaper way of obtaining better quality data, Stuart Pimm, Doris Duke chair of conservation ecology at the Nicholas School, said. The first drone developed by Koh and Wich cost less than $2,000.

“If you’re trying to figure out how many elephants or lions there are [in Africa], you can’t exactly count them,” Pimm said. “You can try to count them from a helicopter, but the only problem with that is that you don’t have any permanent record of what you saw, and it’s hugely expensive.... We’re on the lookout for a really... cheap way of getting the data.”

The drones, which are mostly autonomous, can run independently. The drones also may improve upon existing mapping techniques. Myron, who spent last summer working on conservation efforts for the nonprofit African People and Wildlife Fund, noted that although current geographic information system technology—which generates digital data representations of real landscapes, including objects like trees or waterways—is a powerful tool, researchers sometimes face problems with data quality.

“If you’re working in developing countries, you never know what geospatial data you will be able to find,” Myron said. “With... Google Earth, you can do a lot of geospatial analysis without even leaving your computer. It’s pretty incredible what technology allows you to do... but there’s still obviously a lot of value in going to places like Africa and making sure your data is accurate.”

Drones could eliminate this problem of accuracy because they would be capable of obtaining real-time pictures, she added, while allowing researchers to see areas that may be otherwise inaccessible.

Although scientists at Duke have not yet worked with the drones, Pimm said it is applicable to some of their research. Pimm also works with the Big Cats Initiative, a National Geographic program that funds action-oriented conservation efforts for cheetahs, leopards, lions, tigers, jaguars and other big cats. National Geographic uses materials that Duke students and researchers produce to help inform decisions for the initiative, said Andrew Jacobson, who coordinates BCI activities at Duke. Jacobson received a master’s of environmental management from the Nicholas School in 2010.

Jacobson’s current project centers on making maps to show big cat ranges and distributions and understanding pressures on their habitats. Members of BCI also analyze the effectiveness of grantees’ conservation actions, he noted.

“We’re hoping to do a drone this summer and put it out in the field and do a field test for the [BCI],” Jacobson said.

Charles Welch, conservation coordinator for the Duke Lemur Center, also noted that having a constant source of current information would be invaluable to researchers and to locals in a given area. For his work in particular, drone technology could allow researchers to view lemur habitats—or whole forests. But drone technology would not necessarily be useful for all of his conservation efforts, like studying lemur behavior.

“In the area we’re working in, there are some really remote parts of it that take days of walking even to get there,” he said. “The most useful thing would be for the Madagascar National Parks to have use of the drones.... Imagine if they had that kind of technology and the funds to run it, they could really keep an eye on protected [forest] areas.”

Researchers hope to provide drone technology to conservationists in Africa using a grant from BCI, Pimm noted.

In addition to aiding researchers’ work, Pimm sees conservation drones as having utility for crowdsourcing efforts. Conservation drones can take thousands of photographs, which researchers can stitch together and put online for public viewing.

“You want to get people engaged in counting them—the more eyes the better,” he said. “The idea will be to get people to be sort of virtual park rangers.”

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