Drones for conservation

How drones have become a valuable tool for conservation science

Beth Alexander


Technology and everyday life work in synergy for today’s modern society. There's rarely a day that passes by where you haven’t got instant access to some form of technology that helps you through your day. You may then question, why aren’t we using this technology to further our understanding of the world which we live in? Conservationists’ greatest battle is getting people to fully understand the widespread impact and destruction of human impact on the environment. Many people stand by the motto that they can’t protect or support what they can’t see, so through the use of drone mapping and imaging we can now bring to the forefront of society the most remote and inaccessible parts of the world.

So what exactly is a drone?

At a basic level they are simply a model aircraft fitted with high resolution cameras and video recording systems. They can have an autopilot mode where they follow a set of pre programmed GPS coordinates flying over specific targeted conservation zones, and they can even land themselves. Previously drones were only seen as military equipment or high-tech toys for the wealthy, it is only recently they are taken seriously as a scientific tool used for research and conservation.

‍Photo: James Duncan Davidson

In 2012 Lian Pin Koh and his research partner Serge Wich pioneered the first use of drones in conservation. Wich was surveying critically endangered orang-utans in Sumatra, Indonesia. To collect his data he had to trudge through thick jungle and count the orang-utans that he encountered. This process is extremely time consuming, dangerous and expensive. It can also be very difficult to collect accurate data as orang-utans build their nests high in the canopy and are therefore difficult to spot. The last orang-utan survey conducted in Sumatra took over 4 years and cost around $250,000, this is where Koh came up with the ingenious idea of drone usage, and so the conservation drone was born. He built a basic drone himself and flew it over the canopy of Wichs’ research site. The images they produced were outstanding and a breakthrough for conservation research. They were able to easily identify the orang-utans nesting sites and see areas of the jungle that were in dire need of protection.

Advances in drone technology since 2012 have made them a fundamental part of conservation, enabling scientists to monitor species population, deforestation, agricultural expansions, illegal logging, remote inaccessible landscapes and even marine environments.

Sam Purkis a marine biologist at Nova South-eastern Oceanographic Institution, maps coral reefs to monitor their health. He uses satellite data and drones fitted with a visible light laser and special cameras that penetrate the water to map seafloor topography and identify different habitats. Purkis identifies coral reefs that are unhealthy to help nations with conservation programs.

These developments in drone technology and advances in scientific usage have enabled conservationist to access habitats which were once thought of as inaccessible due to the location itself or due to external factors such as time, funding, support, logistics and even safety in conflict zones.

Drones can help us to understand

It is not only scientists that drones are helping in conservation, it is also allowing the general public to witness with their own eyes the impact we are having on the environment. Many of the images we see in media come from drones. In the recent BBC David Attenborough documentary Blue Planet II, the vast majority of aerial scenes were filmed by drones. This documentary became one of the most popular TV series of the year and enabled people to access endangered habitats from the comfort of their own home. It is images like these that are now provoking people to take action and conserve environments and animals as they have now become more accessible to them. The motto of they can’t protect or support what they can’t see is slowly becoming a myth.

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