Associated Press/Lian Pin Koh, ConservationDrones.org – In this March 1, 2012 photo released by ConservationDrones.org., a drone developed by conservation drone pioneer Lian Pin Ko of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and partner Serge Wich is shown in Zurich, Switzerland.
This year, they have flown more than 200, mostly test runs in Asia using an improved 2.0 version with a 2-meter (6.5 foot) wing span, air time of 45 minutes and a 25-kilometer (15.5-mile) range to track endangered wildlife, spot poachers and chart forest loss. (AP Photo/Lian Pin Koh, ConservationDrones.org) NO SALES, EDITORIAL USE ONLY
In this March 15, 2012 photo released by ConservationDrones.org., conservation drone pioneer Lian Pin Koh, right, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and partner Serge Wich conduct a drone test flight in Zurich, Switzerland. This year, they have flown more than 200, mostly test runs in Asia using an improved 2.0 version of drone with a 2-meter (6.5 foot) wing span, air time of 45 minutes and a 25-kilometer (15.5-mile) range to track endangered wildlife, spot poachers and chart forest loss. (AP Photo/Juanita Choo-Koh, ConservationDrones.org) NO SALES, EDITORIAL USE ONLY
PRANBURI, Thailand (AP) — They’re better known as stealthy killing machines to take out suspected terrorists with pinpoint accuracy. But drones are also being put to more benign use in skies across several continents to track endangered wildlife, spot poachers and chart forest loss.
Although it’s still the “dawn of drone ecology,” as one innovator calls it, these unmanned aerial vehicles are already skimming over Indonesia’s jungle canopy to photograph orangutans, protecting rhinos in Nepal and studying invasive aquatic plants in Florida.
Activists launched a long-range drone in December to locate and photograph a Japanese whaling ship as the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society attempted to block Japan’s annual whale hunt in Antarctic waters.
– portable and
– earth-hugging= flying up and down in constant height
they fill a gap between satellite and manned aircraft imagery and on-the-ground observations, says Percival Franklin at the University of Florida, which has been developing such drones for more than a decade.
“The potential uses are almost unlimited,” says Ian Singleton, director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program, testing drones this year over Indonesia’s Tripa peat forest where fires set by palm oil growers are threatening the world’s highest density habitat of the great apes.
Conservation is one of the latest roles for these multi-taskers,
– either autonomously controlled by on-board computers or
– under remote guidance of a navigator.
Ranging in size from less than half a kilogram (pound) to more than 18 metric tons (20 tons), drones have been used for firefighting, road patrols, hurricane tracking and other jobs too dull, dirty or dangerous for piloted craft.
Most prominently, they have been harnessed by the U.S. military in recent years, often to detect and kill opponents in America’s “war on terror” in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere.
A conservation drone pioneer, Lian Pin Ko of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, says the idea came to him after another sweaty, jungle slog in Sabah, Malaysia, hauling heavy equipment for his field work.
“I told my assistant, who happened to be my wife, ‘How wonderful it would be if we could fly over that area rather than walk there again tomorrow,'” recalled the Singaporean expert on tropical deforestation, and a model plane hobbyist.
Unlike eco-drones in the United States, mostly custom-built or commercial models, Koh last year cobbled together a far cheaper, off-the-shelf version that poorer organizations and governments in the developing world can better afford.
He and partner Serge Wich bought a model plane — some are available in China for as little as $100 — added
– an autopilot system, open source
– software to program missions, and
– still and video cameras.
All for less than $2,000, or ten times cheaper than some commercial drones with similar capabilities.