TECHNOLOGY TAKING CONSERVATION TO NEW HEIGHTS

Matt Pretorius, Wildlife and Energy Senior Field Officer and RPAS pilot, mattp@ewt.org.za

Whether used as toys or tools, drones are no longer a novelty. Coupled with advances in artificial intelligence (AI), drones now have a role to play in most industries, and the scope of our imagination is the only limitation. Drones deliver much-needed medicine to remote communities; scan compromised infrastructure for survivors during emergency disaster response; facilitate smart agriculture; and drop small explosives for the controlled triggering of avalanches, as just a few examples. Of course, there are more sinister potential uses for drones, from spying on your neighbour to so-called ‘slaughterbots’ – terrifying autonomous microdrone assassins with Artificial Intelligence for facial recognition. The latter may sound far-fetched; however, the line between science and science fiction may not be so cut-and-dry when it comes to drones.

Imagine what this technology could mean for conservation? Well, in truth, it has already shaped the future of our industry. Drones have been used in various scientific studies, from detecting rare animals and counting colony-nesting birds to mapping habitats and creating 3D scans of trees. The main practical advantage of a drone is its ability to go places that humans and their traditional modes of transport can’t, and the most significant benefit is that it can safely perform the same tasks by eliminating the need for people to get into dangerous situations. For people working in conservation, these benefits apply not only to airborne activities but also to those conducted in places that are hazardous for humans.

Perhaps one of the best recent examples came in early 2020 when an Endangered Griffon Vulture was killed when she collided with a power line in Israel. Conservationists monitoring the chick she had been rearing needed to find a safe way of feeding it in its mountain top nest, which was completely inaccessible on the cliff face. With the help of a technology start-up and the military, a ‘mama drone’ was deployed to deliver food to the chick, effectively rearing it until it fledged successfully. While the benefit of using the drone was significant in terms of human safety, the project ticked another box: eliminating the need to take the bird out of its natural environment to save it.

But how do wild animals respond to these flying intruders? Is it ethical to use a drone to get close to an animal when it results in a stress response? Perhaps the better question is whether using a drone is less or more detrimental to the animal than current/traditional methods. These questions must be considered before undertaking any new conservation project using drone technology.

In South Africa, drone systems are formally known as remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS). Realising the variety of use cases for RPAS in conservation, the Endangered Wildlife Trust set out to become a legal drone operator in South Africa in 2017. The non-profit, corporate, and commercial use of drones is regulated by the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA), and organisations looking to operate within the legal framework enforced by the SACAA must obtain an RPAS Operating Certificate (ROC). Getting an ROC is quite onerous in terms of the various licences, registrations, and certifications an organisation must acquire – so much so that, unfortunately, many drone pilots are put off by this process and choose to operate illegally.

The long road to obtaining an ROC culminates in a base inspection and a demonstration of operational competency. We were delighted to have passed ours in December 2020 and received our ROC in January 2021 (ROC # G1397D). An ROC holder can only operate within its operational specification, which defines the general parameters of when, where, and how it can operate its RPAS. In addition to this, a letter of intent to the SACAA, the first step of the ROC process, further specifies the activities and services a ROC holder can provide. Thus, when we started the ROC process in 2017, we had to think very carefully about all the possible applications that would fit our mandate as a conservation organisation and the uses for RPAS that would benefit the EWT in general. In the end, we opted to keep the services listed on our letter of intent broad enough to encompass a wide variety of conservation activities:

  1. Surveys for birds, bird nests, and mammals for conservation purposes.
  2. Topographical and vegetation surveys.
  3. Provide aerial support to conservation teams during operations.
  4. Assist authorities in locating injured animals, carcasses, poisoning, and poaching incidents.
  5. Inspect and photograph electrical infrastructure for maintenance and survey purposes.
  6. Use RPAS to elevate telemetry antenna to locate wildlife fitted with tracking devices.
  7. Attach anti-collision devices to linear electrical infrastructure (using a system developed with the help of Eskom-Research, Development and Testing)
  8. Operational assistance during electrical infrastructure maintenance.
  9. Aerial photography and videography.
  10. Assisting specialists with surveys relating to Environmental Impact Assessments and related audits.

We were pleased to have the opportunity to put our tech to good use in January when we provided aerial imagery support to the Gauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (GDARD) for the continuous monitoring of a Hippopotamus seen moving in and around residential areas in northern Johannesburg. The EWT worked with the conservation authorities to locate and monitor the Hippo’s movements to ensure that it made its way to less populated areas safely, without coming into conflict with the area’s residents.

Should you require the services of the EWT’s drone unit for any of the activities listed above, please get in contact with our RPAS Operations Manager, Lourens Leeuwner (lourensl@ewt.org.za). Our RPAS are always ready to take flight for conservation.