For better or worse, drones are changing our lives in ways we never could have imagined. And we may as well get used to it, because they are definitely here to stay.
Did you know that for as little as $150 and a mere 15 minutes of your time you can build your own drone out of Lego? I’m not kidding. A company called Flybrix will sell you a drone kit which comes with enough Lego bricks for you to be able to create yourself a quadcopter, octocopter or hexacopter – take your pick.
Drones are rarely out of the news these days. From unmanned military aircraft in the skies over the tragic country of Syria to Amazon’s proposed new delivery service, drones are everywhere.
In a world first, the Dutch National Police now use trained raptors (bald eagles) – yes, really – to take down the ‘bad’ 5% of drones that are not ok. ‘Unmanned threats’ might just be drones in the wrong place like flight paths, or drones operated by criminals and terrorists with more sinister intent.
But set the eagles aside for one moment – and the sad truth that the human race keeps finding new ways of forcing every animal imaginable and unimaginable into its service. Drones have the incredible potential to help save animals, and indeed the planet.
“As we face a period of mass extinction — of a potentially irreversible depletion of the web of life that sustains us — enterprising conservationists are exploring how new technology might curb those losses. In the near term, this involves eyes in the sky: drones. But in the long term, it may consist of something more comprehensive: semi-autonomous networks of sensors, some of them mobile and enhanced with artificial intelligence, that act as stewards of the wild.”
Drones saving the planet is a big claim, but there is some cause for optimism in the conservation community. Even quite basic drones have already made a significant difference to the animal kingdom.
No-one with an interest in conservation, wildlife or animal rights needs telling about Japan’s illegal whaling in defiance of the International Whaling Commission. Or Sea Shepherd’s war on the whalers. Sea Shepherd received its first drone as a donation in 2011. They intended to use it to film marine life for their TV show on the Animal Planet channel, but found that – even better – the drone could be deployed to collect evidence of the whalers’ illegal activity. And being able to fly even in fog and hover right next to a boat gives them the edge over helicopters. Plus they come with a much smaller price tag!
Each of Sea Shepherd’s ships is now equipped with its own drone, and their deployment has brought down the Japanese’ whale catch to less than one third of their expected quota over the last five years. Sea Shepherd’s founder Paul Watson is an enthusiast. “The only way to combat [illegal whaling] is to have the best technology we can deploy,” he said. “So far, this is the best.”
Naturally, drones are being used over land as well as sea, as for instance in orangutan habitat surveys in Borneo. Surveying on the ground in tropical rainforest is difficult, hazardous, expensive and time consuming. But even a basic drone can provide images that allow conservationists to pinpoint orangutan nests, as well as distinguishing different kinds of land cover – forest, roads, corn fields, oil palm plantations, illegal logging and fires. Drone surveys are fast, inexpensive and invaluable.
There is no end to the projects in which drones play the leading role. These are just a few –
- Chimpanzee conservation in Tanzania
- Tree cover analysis also in Tanzania
- The Jane Goodall Institute’s conservation work in Congo
- Forest monitoring in Suriname
- Monitoring seabirds in North Australia
- Monitoring illegal fishing of totoaba in the Gulf of California which is driving vaquitas to extinction
- Herding elephants away from areas where they are in danger from poaching
- Mapping tree diversity in the Amazon basin
Not before time have drones appeared on the scene. According to a disturbing new study, the Earth’s wilderness areas will be completely wiped out by the year 2100. And plants and animals are reaching the point of extinction at a disastrous rate – a thousand times higher than would happen if no humans were living on the planet.
There are many reasons for this frightening state of affairs, not least among them the fact that a staggering 30% of the Earth’s land mass is being used for animal agriculture, and this can only increase given the emerging economies’ new appetite for meat and dairy products, China of course, being the biggest.
With its rapid growth in wealth comes a ravening lust after raw materials and products of every kind, whether traded legally or illegally. China has become a black hole, sucking in everything within its earth-embracing gravitational field: ivory, rhino horn, shark fins, pangolin scales, tiger parts, bear bile, seahorses, and more. Rhino horn and elephant ivory are literally worth their weight in gold.
As we are all only too aware, Africa’s iconic animals are being decimated. “South Africa’s Kruger National Park is ground zero for poachers,” says Crawford Allan, spokesman for the World Wildlife Fund’s crime technology project. “There are 12 gangs in there at any [given] time. It’s almost like a war zone.” And its not just the wildlife that’s dying. African park rangers are being murdered at the rate of 100 a year.
China may be the biggest consumer of illegally trafficked protected and endangered species, but by no means the only one. The US, Vietnam, Lao, the Philippines are but a few of the rest. The illegal wildlife trade is worth billions, equal in value to the illicit trades in arms and drugs. The WWF has even suggested that the trafficking mafia have now become so large and powerful, they pose a real threat to the stability of some nations.
This is the scale of the problem the little drone is up against.
And the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, even a virtually noiseless second generation one equipped with thermal imaging that simply returns to base with nice snapshots, is not actually much help alone in the fight against poachers. By the time staff on the ground have examined the data and sent rangers to the right location, the poachers are long gone, leaving a bloodied butchered corpse behind.
“You can have a drone flying for 100 hours. But if you can’t get a team there in 5 minutes, what’s the good of having a drone?”
What is needed is a ‘cyber canopy’, which is exactly what WWF have developed with the aid of a $5 million Global Impact Award from Google. Their system comprises 5 technologies, the foremost of which is the UAV (the drone), all rolled into one package: the WWF’s Wildlife Crime Technology Project
- Unmanned Aerial Systems for surveillance and rapid response
- Digital monitoring systems that monitor high-risk areas and boundaries of protected areas
- Affordable wildlife/patrol tracking devices connected through mesh networks
- Rifle shot recognition software in portable devices with real-time connectivity
- Data integration and analysis through the Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART).
I’m glad to say, already in successful use in Namibia, Kenya and Nepal combating poaching and wildlife crime.
The problem is that conservation organisations mostly don’t have a cool $5 million at their disposal and cannot afford such sophisticated systems and top of the range drones – the very topic primatologist Serge Wich and academic colleague Lian Pin Koh were brainstorming one fine day over coffee. From this meeting of minds emerged the seed of an idea which a year later burgeoned into their non-profit organisation Conservation Drones.
These two men have a vision. They see a future where swarms of semi-autonomous drones fitted with infrared cameras patrol protected areas, relaying back their own garnered data as well as data beamed up to them from camera traps on the ground. This is the first step towards a conservation version of ‘The Quantified Self-Movement’. If like me, you are new to this concept, the QSM is “A wide-ranging Internet of Things (IOT) ecosystem …to support the process of connecting real-world objects like buildings, roads, household appliances, and human bodies to the Internet via sensors and microprocessor chips that record and transmit data such as sound waves, temperature, movement, and other variables.” We are practically there already with our smartphones, fitbits, tablets, cameras and watches, cars, home appliances, medical equipment, aircraft and weaponry.
Now for ‘buildings’, ‘appliances; and ‘humans’ substitute camera traps, different species of animals and well yes, humans. What is needed to enable drones to gather, identify and relay back this data and create that cyber canopy, a ‘quantified biodiversity system’ if you like, is Artificial Intelligence. And in fact AI software for drones already exists. A Dutch firm Birds.ai is selling their version to farmers for monitoring livestock and crops. It enables UAVs to distinguish cows from deer, trucks from tractors.
Ironic isn’t it, that livestock farmers who must take quite a lot of responsibility for destroying habitats and their biodiversity along with them, are the ones who can afford this technology. Conservationists not so much. All is not lost though. Birds.ai, rather like its name, has two wings, one commercial and one non-profit, and the latter aims to supply the software for next-to-nothing to the cash-strapped conservationists.
But if anyone has big money riding on all this, it’s the trafficking cartels. What’s to stop them using the same kind of technology to outsmart the embattled conservationists? Or even hacking the conservationists’ own systems to locate for themselves the animals and the rangers? As with all forms of cyber hacking, it will be a big challenge to stay ahead of the game.
And quite apart from that not-so-little problem, is a piecemeal approach to wildlife and its habitats, a project here and another there, even with the aid of drones, really going to halt our headlong rush to planetary armageddon? Not in the opinion of renowned biologist Professor E.O. Wilson. His is a much grander plan, but one he believes to be imperative if we are not to lose vital wilderness habitats with all their biodiversity – and indeed threaten our own existence. His bold idea is to keep only half the planet for humans, and designate the other half solely for the wild – Half for Us Half for the Animals. Which of course doesn’t mean splitting the Earth in two pole to pole! Rather establishing a worldwide system of protected wilderness areas linked by wildlife corridors.
In this scenario, semi-autonomous drone ‘eyes in the sky’ would provide invaluable guardianship of the wild against human incursion. And with the massive quantities of ecological data they provide, we would be better able to monitor the status of Nature’s health. Carnegie Science already has ambitious plans to use their own advanced UAV to create a 3D animal mapping of the entire world and to monitor climate change. That is a huge ambition. Knowledge is power, and accurate real-time data like this could provide an incredible basis for effective action to save the planet.
“So if human civilisation increasingly represents a kind of cybernetic superorganism – a vast, living network of machines and people that’s greater than the sum of its parts – drones may function as sensory organs informing this brain, as probes for what’s really a nascent planetary nervous system.
If we actually pull off this great retreat, this new human-machine life form will have done something highly unusual and perhaps unprecedented in the history of life on earth. Rather than furiously expanding until all resources are depleted, it will have deliberately retreated as a survival tactic. It will have made room for other life forms. A new sort of intelligence, one that’s proactive rather than reactive, will have emerged.”
Drones and all the potential they embody will play an indispensable part in this new mega-organism saving our precious wilderness and wildlife. But the drones, advanced and complex as they may be, are the easy bit. Now we just need to work on the humans.
To find out more about the use of drones for our wildlife and wild spaces see ConservationDrones.org
What’s Better Than Lego? Drones Made of Lego! – Wired
A Dutch company is training eagles to take down drones – Science Alert
The Flying Sensor Network That Could (Finally!) Save Our Planet – BackChannel
Facts on Animal Farming and the Environment – One Green Planet
Half for Us Half for the Animals
Planet at the Crossroads
Why Today Really Matters
Saving Wildlife on the World Wide Web
Ten Fascinating Ways Technology is Saving Animals