Watch­ing na­ture

These eyes in the sky are help­ing to man­age en­dan­gered species.

Australian Geographic - - Geo Buzz -

DRONES ARE NOW be­ing used to col­lect data on en­dan­gered species, help­ing to cre­ate more ef­fec­tive re­cov­ery strate­gies.

“They’ve got a bad rep­u­ta­tion,” says Lee Stew­art, Head of Sus­tain­abil­ity at multi­na­tional IT com­pany Fu­jitsu. “You see them fly­ing around loudly at parks, but their po­ten­tial is huge, es­pe­cially in the com­mer­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal sec­tor.”

This year, Fu­jitsu part­nered with the New South Wales

Of­fice of En­vi­ron­ment and Her­itage (OEH) for the pilot Dig­i­tal Owl Project, which uses drones to iden­tify pop­u­la­tions of en­dan­gered aca­cia and daisy species, and of in­va­sive prickly pears in Mt Dan­gar. The lat­ter was in­tro­duced to Aus­tralia with the ar­rival of the First Fleet and has since wreaked havoc on ar­eas such as Mt Dan­gar, which is home to many en­dan­gered plant species.

Pre­vi­ously, the gov­ern­ment re­lied on heli­copters for sur­veys of the area in an at­tempt to iden­tify patches of prickly pear, and used plenty of jet fuel.

Also, the sur­veys weren’t as ac­cu­rate as they could be.

Adding to this, Mt Dan­gar is very much off the beaten track – a hard-to-ac­cess part of Wollemi Na­tional Park – and rangers were strug­gling to cover the nec­es­sary area. “Add to that the fact that these guys are un­der-re­sourced and you can see how dif­fi­cult their jobs re­ally are,” Lee says.

Fu­jitsu and the OEH con­ducted the first sur­vey in July, with the help of Car­bonix, a com­pany that makes high­end, spe­cialised com­mer­cial drones that take off ver­ti­cally and travel hor­i­zon­tally – mak­ing them easy to use in re­mote bush­land. Har­ness­ing high­per­for­mance com­put­ing and video an­a­lyt­ics, a drone was pro­grammed to iden­tify the three species of plant and,

Lee says, will get bet­ter and bet­ter as it’s fed more in­for­ma­tion. With this first trial they were just scratch­ing the sur­face.

“Even­tu­ally, we even want to add ther­mal imag­ing so we can track mam­mals in the area,” he ex­plains.

“We want gov­ern­ments, farm­ers and pol­i­cy­mak­ers to be able to make bet­ter plans for erad­i­cat­ing in­va­sive species, cli­mate change adap­ta­tion and species mon­i­tor­ing.”

Like Fu­jitsu and the OEH, con­ser­va­tion groups such as the Wilder­ness So­ci­ety, Green­peace and the Aus­tralian Con­ser­va­tion Foun­da­tion have re­alised the po­ten­tial of drones for bio­di­ver­sity mon­i­tor­ing, and are us­ing them to iden­tify sites of en­vi­ron­men­tal de­struc­tion and com­mu­ni­cat­ing this de­struc­tion to the gen­eral pub­lic. “We need to un­der­stand what’s hap­pen­ing with the en­vi­ron­ment on a more reg­u­lar ba­sis,” Lee says, “and the drones al­low us to do that. It’s the per­fect show­case of how this tech­nol­ogy can be used for good.”

AN­GELA HEATH­COTE

Re­searchers in the pilot OEH Sav­ing our Species Dig­i­tal Owl Project take a drone to Mt Dan­gar.

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