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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

It’s a bird...It’s a plane...It’s a conservation drone!

Air Date: Week of
Lian Pin Koh and Serge Wich with their conservation drone. (Photo: Lian Pin Koh)

Drones are unmanned aircraft often associated with the military. But now they’re being used in the war against deforestation, animal poaching and habitat destruction. Living on Earth’s Bruce Gellerman, talks to the drones’ creator, Lian Pin Koh from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland.


GELLERMAN: It’s a recycled edition of Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman.


GELLERMAN: Environmentalists have a new weapon in their war on deforestation, poaching of endangered species…


GELLERMAN:…and the destruction of animal habitats.


GELLERMAN: Drones. Fleets of small, self-flying airplanes could soon become part of the eco-arsenal.


GELLERMAN: A tropical forest clearing in Sumatra serves as a runway—as Lian Pin Koh test-flies his conservation drone. Quickly airborne, the drone’s cameras capture a bird’s eye view of the dense forest below.


GELLERMAN: But Lian Pin Koh found that some of the test flight landings were rougher than expected.


Lian Pin Koh plotting the drone’s course. (Photo: Lian Pin Koh)

GELLERMAN: When he’s not in Sumatra testing his eco-surveillance plane, Professor Lian Pin Koh teaches ecology and conservation at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. He’s co-developer of the conservation drone One-Point-O, and says the idea of using small, self-flying airplanes is really taking off.

KOH: So it's basically just a hobby, remote-control model plane that you can buy from any hobby shop. It has a wing-span of about 1.4 meters, so it’s pretty small and it's very compact. We can basically put it in a backpack and carry it around in the forest.

GELLERMAN: How far does it go and how high does it go?

KOH: It can fly for about 20 to 25 minutes, which gives it a range of about ten to 15 kilometers and it can be programmed to fly up to maybe about 300 meters above ground.

GELLERMAN: About a thousand feet.

KOH: Right. But the cool thing about this system is we’ve incorporated an autopilot system into this model airplane, which essentially makes it into a drone.

GELLERMAN: So, this plane flies itself?

KOH: Correct, it flies itself, autonomously!

GELLERMAN: (Laughs.) So, it’s the autonomous nature of the plane - that you have this software that allows it to fly itself - that’s the innovation that you bring to this.

An oil palm plantation photographed by the drone. (Photo: Lian Pin Koh)

KOH: Well, yes. But I should say that the autopilot hardware and software have been developed by a group of online developers and hobbyists, so it is open-source software. So, what we did was to take this system and apply it to our research area, which is tropical conservation.

By strapping a camera on the belly of the plane you can easily see the plumes of smoke on the horizon, and those could be illegal burning activities that many of the local rangers and forest mangers want to be able to control and to keep track of. The other would be taking aerial photos to produce real-time land cover maps.

GELLERMAN: What about tracking wild animals?

KOH: Yeah, that’s the third main purpose of these drones: to be able to count the number of cheetahs or antelopes or elephants, which would be already a huge cost savings, because what’s currently being done is that ecologists go on manned aircrafts to try to do those kinds of surveys and that can be very, very expensive.

So I should also add, that when we began using drones for conservation, we actually decided to first buy a commercial system that costs tens of thousands of dollars and we found that it doesn’t really do all the things that we wanted it to do, and besides, it cost a huge amount of money, which many local conservation workers in the tropics would not be able to afford.

GELLERMAN: So how much did your system cost?

KOH: So, our system costs less than two thousand dollars.


The drone’s photo of an orangutan high up in a tree. (Photo: Lian Pin Koh)

KOH: Including the cameras and the electronics and the plane and the software, but the software is open-source, of course.

GELLERMAN: So when you’re about to fly this drone, what do you do, you program it? How do you make it go where you want it to go?

KOH: That’s very simple. We just basically have to click on waypoints on a Google map - we just upload it to the drone and flick a switch on the radio system and it takes off on its own and goes about its mission. And after it’s done with the mission, it flies back to us.

GELLERMAN: Professor Koh, why not use satellites for imaging the rainforest?

KOH: Yeah, we have been using satellites as well, but a couple of problems: one is the cost, and the second reason is because in many parts of the humid tropics, there is persistent cloud cover, so it’s very difficult to get real time images from a particular location using satellite-based remote sensing.

GELLERMAN: You know, Professor Koh, have you thought of this, that you’re flying this drone over a forest, and you hone in on a deforester, someone who is cutting down trees, and they start shooting at the drone, and maybe shooting at you.

The drone took this aerial photo of a roaming elephant. (Photo: Lian Pin Koh)

KOH: Actually, being shot at was one of the motivations for developing the drone too! Being shot at is a big risk of having manned aircraft flying over forests looking for illegal loggers, or poachers, so if the drone gets shot at, it’s the drone that goes down, it’s only a two thousand dollar technology. It’s practically disposable compared to a manned aircraft or an ultra-lite.

GELLERMAN: Since you’ve had successful test flights, have environmental groups coming to you saying, ‘hey, we could use that’?

KOH: Yeah, we’ve got lots of people contacting us, we’ve got colleagues from other research institutes asking us to go to Borneo to fly over the rainforest, asking us to go to Africa and we’ve even got someone asking us to bring our drones to the Antarctica to film penguins!

GELLERMAN: Professor Koh, were you the kind of kid - I know I was - who flew model airplanes and all that?

KOH: No, no. I wanted to fly, but we just couldn't afford to buy one of those things in my family, so I’m sort of living my childhood dream now. You know, one of my dreams is to be able to develop something that is of real practical use to conservation in the tropics, apart from all of the academic work that I’m engaged in, to reach out to the people on the ground who are actually doing conservation.

Photos like this taken by the drone can show logging in a forest. (Photo: Lian Pin Koh)

GELLERMAN: Is it fun to fly?

KOH: Oh, it’s very fun! That’s the other reason why we developed the drone! (Laughs)

GELLERMAN: (Laughs) Well, congratulations Professor Koh, you’ve earned your wings!

KOH: (Laughs) Oh, thank you very much.

GELLERMAN: Lian Pin Koh is a professor of ecology and conservation at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.



Learn more about the conservation drones, and watch videos


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