Conservation Drones take Flight

Rhett A. Butler, 

Conservationists have converted a remote-controlled plane into a potent tool for conservation.

Using seed funding from the National Geographic Society, The Orangutan Conservancy, and the Denver Zoo, Lian Pin Koh, an ecologist at the ETH Zürich, and Serge Wich, a biologist at the University of Zürich and PanEco, have developed a conservation drone equipped with cameras, sensors and GPS. So far they have used the remote-controlled aircraft to map deforestation, count orangutans and other endangered species, and get a bird’s eye view of hard-to-access forest areas in North Sumatra, Indonesia.

“The main goal of this project is to develop low-cost Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) that every conservation biologist in the tropics can use for surveying forests and biodiversity,” said Koh via email. “Drones are already being used for many purposes including the military, agriculture, and even in Hollywood for filming. But they are still not commonly used for conservation purposes.”

The reason, says Koh, is the high cost of commercial systems, which can run $10,000-50,000. Koh’s first drone cost less than $2,000 and can be carried in a backpack

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