Conservation Drones: Mapping and Monitoring Biodiversity – Review

Conservation Drones: Mapping and Monitoring BiodiversityPoachingFacts rating: 5 of 5 stars

Conservation Drones: Mapping and Monitoring Biodiversity is written by Serge A. Wich and Lian Pin Koh. They are also the founders of the website ConservationDrones.org which is a nonprofit under Mongabay.org, the conservation news organization.

Together they have produced a very readable textbook, although it does have distracting in-line citations, covering every conceivable topic related to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in the conservation field. Excluding the references section, the textbook is only 96 pages long, but well worth the read for anyone who wants to get jump-started into the concepts and real-world uses of drones and how they have impacted the future of conservation.

Conservation Drones begins by addressing the alternatives to drones as well as their benefits and weaknesses. Drones, as with any emerging technology, are not immediately or perfectly adapted to every scenario they can be used. Drones can have liabilities and increased manpower costs disproportionate to more expensive aerial surveillance methods, or even existing traditional methods. This is mainly due to equipment expenses and the time and effort of sorting through the thousands or tens of thousands of photos that the drones return with after each flight. These photos need to be sorted and the relevant data must be noted and saved for later use. Until machine learning algorithms and the associated compute power get into the hands of more conservationists, most of this data would be sorted manually.

The second and third chapters describe the different varieties of drones (fixed wing, vertical takeoff and landing, etc.) used in conservation and also the methods and utility of various sensors that can be equipped. While the chapter on sensors has become somewhat outdated (the textbook was published in 2018), it does a great job of providing real-life use-case scenarios, such as Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) cameras used for terrestrial mammal detection in a koala conservation project. Or a multispectral sensor used to detect baleen whales and other marine mammals. Hopefully these real-life use-cases will inspire students and researchers to adapt these tools, often found on the shelf, to their particular program or activities.

The fourth chapter is one of the shortest, but is on the most important subject: surveillance. Drones are generally used for some form of observation (surveillance) and the use and regulation of unmanned surveillance equipment, particularly aerial drones, is still changing rapidly and does not always favor the people using these devices for ethical purposes. In an increasing number of African countries civilians have been permitted to use drones for recreation and scientific use, however this is a very recent development and one that has not come soon enough. While the subject of surveillance will undoubtedly be the theme of many theses and reports for some time to come, the chapter in Conservation Drones at least touches on all the major aspects.

The chapter on mapping is brief. It touches on aspects of photographing and planning missions over certain types of terrain and difficult topography. It pairs well with chapter seven which discusses at length “data post processing.” This relates how to get drone(s) to be useful at a large scale and how to recover, manipulate, and render the data into something larger and more nuanced than a single two-dimensional image. It is not fully instructional, but outlines all the requirements and practical uses. Such as using software to stitch a series of photos together to make a broader, seamless image with greater detail than a single photograph taken from farther away. Additional detail and resolution can also be acquired by overlapping flight patterns to take more than one photo of an area and using software to enhance the image. The seventh chapter concludes with how to analyze the resulting data composition.

The sixth chapter analyzes animal detection, which is used broadly across the wildlife and marine life conservation programs and roles. Uses include population counts, species diversity and density, understanding the interactions and coexistence of multiple disparate species, food security, tracking collar data collection, and anti-poaching. While this is a good chapter and again provides real world evidence of drones used in many of these and other activities, we hope that the authors will follow up on their work with further publications on emerging technologies used in these roles, particularly anti-poaching which straddles civilian and law enforcement use and can therefore be regulated very differently. That regulation defines how broadly drones can be utilized and also what rights to privacy people can expect. One of the most interesting parts of this chapter is about the impact of drone noise on wild bears outfitted with tracking collars and heart-rate monitors.

The final chapter briefly touches on the future of drones and again describes some of the current pitfalls of drone usage and how drones will need to advance to become more useful and widespread in conservation. In the future we would like to see discussion about illicit drone usage by bad actors such as poachers, commercial bushmeat hunters, and even highly organized militias in opposition of regional or national governments.

We found Conservation Drones to be a pricey but well-written, easy to read, and enlightening textbook. The authors Serge A. Winch and Lian Pin Koh will undoubtedly continue to make their marks on drone use in conservation. Catch their TED Talk (2013) and read more about their front-line work at ConservationDrones.org.

Further Reading:

We also recommend Lian Pin Koh‘s publication The oil palm conundrum: How oil palm agriculture affects tropical biodiversity and what can we do about it as well as Serge A. Wich‘s earlier published textbooks titled An Introduction to Primate Conservation (2016) and Orangutans: Geographic Variation in Behavioral Ecology and Conservation (2009/2010).

For a hefty textbook on cheetah conservation, we highly recommend Dr. Laurie Marker‘s Cheetahs: Biology and Conservation: Biodiversity of the World: Conservation from Genes to Landscapes.


This and other PoachingFacts reviews are also available on GoodReads.com.