Going Green: How Drones Are Changing the Landscape of Conservation

Going Green: How Drones Are Changing the Landscape of Conservation

In the fall of 2019, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) partnered with Washington State University graduate student Daniel Auerbach on a conservation mission to identify and survey the habitats of the local summer Chinook salmon. The salmon populations were dropping, and biologists needed a way to locate the salmon spawning nests. The salmon were considered to be vital to the oceanic ecosystem, as well as the local tribal heritage.

In order to begin their conservation efforts, the biologists needed to first understand the size of the salmon population. Traditionally this process is incredibly time consuming, as researchers must take a boat up the river to manually collect data at recorded spawning sites. Aurebach and WDFW marine biologist McLain Johnson instead turned to drone technology to aid them in their data collection.

They used a drone to survey the populations of the salmon, which greatly shortened the project time while providing more accurate results than previous methods. It also supplied them with additional insights into the ecosystem processes and habitat.

Daniel Aurebach preparing to collect data on the salmon populations of the Wenatchee River. (Daily Evergreen)

The data the drones collect also allows researchers to monitor the prevalence and distribution of animal populations, and can provide them with insights on animal habitats and their sustainability. This can shed light on factors that may be adversely affecting population growth rates, as well as reveal areas of potential shortages.

The use of drones in conservation and wildlife research has exploded in recent years, and is only expected to increase as they become smaller and more affordable for scientists. Drones are exciting researchers, as they provide greater ease of access and detail than was previously possible on foot or via satellite imaging.

Not only can drones maneuver into areas previously unreachable by plane or helicopter, but they can also do so with minimal intrusion on the animal habitats. Drones also keep researchers safe in environments with dangerous terrain or wildlife. Historically, aircraft crashes have been the top killer of scientists in the field, taking the lives of 91 biologists and researchers between 1937 and 2000. Even as recently as 2018, three WDFW researchers were killed in a helicopter crash while attempting to track the movement and survival of deer populations.

The versatility of drones allows researchers to deploy them almost anywhere, and are suited for almost any project. All over the world, drones are being used for research work like surveying terrain, mapping cultural sites, performing wildfire imaging and surveillance, and monitoring erosion. Drones are also excellent options for monitoring protected areas, and can map water sources, deploy erosion controls, check fence lines and borders, track alien plant invasions, and even spot illegal poachers.

Researchers can use drones to monitor volcano emissions to forecast future eruptions.(Royal Society)

Drones have also been adopted for humanitarian work, as they can provide aerial documentation to assist in effectively distributing relief supplies. This data is also invaluable for coordinating rebuilding efforts, and can quickly highlight the areas most affected by natural disasters and other destructive events. These drones have also become a major asset to search and rescue teams, which can utilize their thermal imaging and aerial point of view to find lost hikers and stranded travelers easier than ever before.

Drones are helping to provide creative solutions to research barriers scientists face every day. By adapting to a host of interesting applications and missions, unmanned technology is furthering conservation efforts all over the world.