Effectively conserving orangutans hinges on accurate and timely data on orangutan distribution, density and land cover change. Data on orangutan distribution and density have traditionally been obtained by costly and time consuming ground surveys. Although these yield solid data they are too expensive and time consuming to conduct on a regular basis. Data on land cover change traditionally comes mainly from freely available low resolution satellite images, because high resolution images are often too costly for conservation workers especially when they need to be obtained on a regular basis.
Therefore Lian Pin Koh and Serge Wich started to develop a new approach: the conservation drone.
Conservation Drones are inexpensive, autonomous and operator-friendly unmanned aerial vehicles for surveying and mapping forests and biodiversity. They are able to fly pre-programmed missions autonomously for a total flight time of up to ~50 minutes and over a distance of ~25 km. Depending on the camera system installed, these drones can record videos at up to 1080 pixel resolution, and acquire aerial photographs of <10 cm pixel resolution. Aerial photographs can be stitched together to produce near real-time geo-referenced land use/cover maps of surveyed areas.
As Dr. Wich explains, “A main aim of our work is to share our knowledge for building low-cost Conservation Drones to help conservation workers and researchers in developing countries do their jobs a lot more effectively and cost efficiently.”
During the past few months the researchers have tested the conservation drones above orangutan habitat in Sumatra and Sabah (Borneo). The aim of these tests was to determine whether the system could really detect orangutan’s nests. The results are in and it can.
In addition to orangutan nests the drones were also able to make photos or elephants, rhinos (in Nepal), and other species. The second aim was to determine how useful the system can be in providing information on land cover types and changes. The images from the drone are of a high enough resolution that one can not only easily distinguish land cover (forest, corn fields, oil palm plantations, etc), but also detect logging, locate fires, small roads, etc. The drone approach therefore seems extremely promising as a tool in orangutan conservation and we look forward developing this further in close collaboration with our partners.
Although Wich and Koh conceived of the idea of the conservation drone while discussing orangutan research and conservation, the drones are now being tested in various countries for a whole range of projects.
The Orangutan Conservancy was one of the first organizations to help support this innovative project, and we will coninute to in the future. The early test results are already in and the data is very encouraging. In the months ahead, as the project continues, we will post videos and reports from the field. To view some of the early test flights click here.