It might be illegal to cut down a tree in certain parts of Peru’s Amazon rainforest, but that doesn’t mean it’s hard to do. With limited resources, official patrols can only cover a small amount of ground each day. So one conservation team is trying out a new approach: patrols by drone, focused on hotspots identified by satellite.
“Because it’s such an incredibly remote area, and we’re operating on a small budget with a small staff, you can’t necessarily just send someone out on foot to see what’s happening,” says Hannah Stutzman, executive director of the Amazon Conservation Association, a U.S. nonprofit that helps manage a sprawling Peruvian conservation area called Los Amigos, nestled at the base of the Andes.
The nonprofit is working with researchers in a pilot project to test two foam drones in the area. First, the researchers use custom software that compares two satellite images of the forest and detects any changes in individual trees. When they find a problem, they send in the drones to figure out what’s happening.
“The software can alert you that something happened in that pixel,” says Miles Silman, a biology professor at Wake Forest University who is helping lead the pilot. “But until you go to that area and look at it, you can’t know why that happened. It could be someone going in and clearing it for a farm field, it could be gold mining. So one of the things we can do is find these areas that are interesting–many are remote, many can be in dangerous places–and send a drone over them and look and see what’s going on.”
It’s not easy to pilot a drone over the canopy of the rainforest, so part of the project involves figuring out the best way to avoid crashing. “There’s a steep learning curve, and there’s still a lot of different ways that you can lose your aircraft,” says Silman. “So one of our informal mottos is, ‘We crash so you don’t have to.'”
The pilot project is partly an experiment for Los Amigos to manage its own land, but it’s also an attempt to create a template for other conservation zones. “We’d like it to be a laboratory for practical solutions that can be used more broadly,” says Stutzman. In Africa, other groups have used drones in similar ways to monitor illegal wildlife poaching.
The huge volumes of data the drones generate can be used for more than just monitoring illegal logging. Researchers are using the images to precisely measure the regrowth of trees in areas that are being reforested, so the government can sell carbon credits. The drones can also monitor animal populations and other environmental changes. In the U.S. earlier this year, the researchers used drones to measure a coal ash spill in a river, and create a 3-D model of the damage.
“All we did was fly a foam plane with a camera on it,” Silman says. “There’s no magic in this. The magic is in the computation. Yet it was information that no one had.”
Silman compares the importance of drones in biology to the advent of the internet. They’ll fundamentally change how forests are protected. “These are areas that we could only get one or two looks at in an entire year, if that. Now we can go back in and monitor these places on whatever time period the landowner wants,” Silman says.