Finding a new way to explore the natural world

In the first of the NBN’s blogs written by a guest, we have an interesting piece from freelance writer Emma Mills.

Written by Emma Mills – freelance writer

My first real experience of drones happened in suburban Gloucester. We’d all seen by then the military use of drones in the Middle East, but then suddenly they were flying over our gardens. Not that we should have been surprised, our neighbour has always had a thing for boy’s toys, so to speak, with a collection of radio controlled helicopters and the like, so it should have been no surprise to see a fully operational drone hovering over our rose bush one summer afternoon.

It is too easy to concentrate on the drone as either an instrument of war or as a toy to irritate neighbours and airport traffic control. They do have the power to be more useful and inspirational than that. Already they are changing how we view sporting events, providing track previews, promo footage, and new real-time coverage from above with an intimacy a helicopter camera can only dream of. They have even become a sport in themselves with one race in Dubai offering $1 million to the winning drone team. However, it is in nature that these drones can have the most positive effect.

The Big Issues in conservation

Before we talk about drones in Britain, let’s look at what drones are doing for the big, endangered animals on this planet. More specifically, in Africa where rhinos are being poached to extinction for their horns, big cats are being killed for their fur and pseudo-medicinal properties, and elephants for their tusks.

Drones are being employed for two main purposes. These machines cannot engage with animals or poachers, but they can monitor both from a safe distance. By using on-board camera footage, conservationists can examine animal health, behaviour, breeding, and so on. They can also look out for poachers. This gives them an edge in better deploying anti-poacher forces to engage with them before they get the animal while keeping conservationists a safe distance from the animals themselves which are potentially dangerous.

How drones can help UK conservation

The UK has little in the way of endangered megafauna, though drones may be useful in helping to cut down sheep rustling. Its biggest uses are going to be educational and observational across some of the more remote and harder to access areas of the United Kingdom.

First, it may be worth noting that the drone has its limits. The devices are best in open land, over sea, over islands, open fields, down valleys and so on, but they are not good at penetrating dense woodland. This means they might not be so good for tracking wild boar in the Forest of Dean for example. However, all is not lost because drones have more than cameras. The FT reported in 2014 that drones can pick up signals from tagged animals within forests to track their movements and other data.

The RSPB is using similar tracking devices with birds across the UK to monitor movements, patterns, and flock health. Two projects they’ve undertaken involving drones and satellite tracking have followed the red-headed vulture to south Asia to find that a livestock drug may be causing their decline. They have also followed a Scottish migratory bird, the red-necked phalarope, to see where they winter. It was thought they went as far as southeast Asia, but tracking has found them to go even further – to the Galapagos Islands.

Education and Ecotourism in the UK

In terms of education, drones can be utilised for promotional videos and virtual tours. After the new Star Wars movie, interest in Skellig Michael off the Irish coast exploded. This is a remote, inaccessible, and dangerous crag of rock jutting out of the sea. It is also home to bird colonies which can be monitored and seen by drone.

Drone footage uploaded to social media sites like YouTube and AirVuz, make it easier for people to experience remote nature areas from a distance. Of course it is nice to be able to see such an area, and any one person or small group can do so without causing too much damage to the environment, but if hundreds or thousands want to go it poses a serious risk. Drones can create the virtual footage required to mitigate these impacts, but still allowing people to see these wondrously beautiful areas.



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