These eyes in the sky are helping to manage endangered species.
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.”
Researchers in the pilot OEH Saving our Species Digital Owl Project take a drone to Mt Dangar.