Drones help provide environmentally friendly solution to save island ecosystems
By DRONELIFE Features Editor Jim Magill
All images courtesy Island Conservation, used with permission.
Many island communities throughout the world face enormous challenges, from rising sea levels to the introduction of non-native species that can destroy fragile ecosystems.
An international non-governmental organization is using drone technology to help eradicate invasive species, reinvigorate reef systems, reduce coastal erosion and reintroduce native species whose populations have dwindled.
“Island Conservation is the world’s only conservation nonprofit that’s focused exclusively on restoring and rewilding islands all around the world,” said Bren Ram Island Conservation’s projects communications manager. “This is actually our 30th year of existence and over that time we’ve been able to collect a massive amount of data about a nature-based solution that can really help island ecosystems thrive, which is removing invasive species from islands.”
The Santa Cruz, California-based group recently began using drones to spread bait to help eliminate invasive species of animals, chiefly rats, allowing native flora and fauna to flourish. The bait contains small amounts of poison, fatal to the vermin, but not harmful for the rest of the environment.
Ram said the elimination of invasive species is an environmentally safe solution to enriching the ecosystems of islands and combatting the destructive effects of climate change.
“When invasive species are removed, native species get to come back — mainly, seabirds and other animals that travel around the world and bring nutrients from the ocean back onto the land. When seabirds are able to nest safely on islands, they enrich the island with their guano, which helps native plants to flourish,” she said.
The droppings from the returning seabirds wash off into the near-shore ecosystem, providing valuable nutrients to nearby coral reefs. “It makes reefs healthier and it improves food security for people that live nearby, because then there’s more fish, and more ground cover for various other animals, and healthier plants that they can harvest,” Ram said.
Prior to the introduction of drone spreaders, the distribution of the bait could only be accomplished by hand spreading, or by the more costly option of using a helicopter. Contracting third-party helicopter operators was not only prohibitively expensive, but also presented a myriad of logistical challenges, especially for eradication efforts on smaller and more remote islands.
“So, what has the use of drones allowed us to do? It’s not just allowed us to get better coverage of islands, but also keeps that expertise in the communities that need it,” Ram said. Working in conjunction with the local populations of the islands where it operates, Island Conservation also provides the communities with drones and training in their use.
“We’ve been able to train a bunch of community members on various islands around the world to use drones for their own conservation ends. So, they get to decide what’s important for them to track, to pay attention to,” Ram said.
One use that the indigenous island people have found for the drones is in keeping track of native species that have been reintroduced to their island homes. “In the Galapagos we’re having a project right now where once the invasive mammals are removed, they’re going to bring back bunches of tortoises, iguanas and various other animals. Being able to track them with drones will help us measure the impact of our work with much more granularity and a higher degree of accuracy.”
David Will, Island Conservation’s head of innovation, said the idea for the aerial distribution of bait pellets to control invasive species in island locales began in the 1990s when New Zealand introduced a helicopter distribution program.
“That transformed the field of island restoration, allowing a lot more of these invasive species eradications to occur,” he said. However, recognizing the limits of helicopter-based distribution, Island Conservation began experimenting with the use of drones to perform the work.
The conservation team soon learned that drones that were commercially available in those early days of experimentation, such as the DJI Phantom 4, didn’t have the payload capacity or flight duration needed to meet the challenge. Then in 2019, the return of rodents to Seymour Norte, a tiny but ecologically important island in the Galapagos chain, triggered the declaration a conservation emergency.
“We worked with a couple of individuals, who started their own company that built a custom drone with a 10-kilogram (22-pound) payload capacity to be able to deliver this conservation bait,” Will said. That first conservation project proved the feasibility of using UAVs in this manner.
“We were able to deliver bait across the island, but then the spreaders broke and we had to do the rest of that application by hand broadcast. And then, the second application we were able to do again by drones,” he said. “Since then, we’ve now done 12 different islands on eight different island groups around the world.”
Island Conservation partners with Envico Technologies, a New Zealand-based company specializing in the development of aerial and ground-based conservation tools, which produces the custom-built all-electric drones used in the distribution of conservation bait. The company currently is engineering an aerial vehicle with more payload capacity and longer flight capability, designed to accommodate larger conservation projects.
“They’re developing a hybrid gas/electric drone with a 50-kilogram (110-pound) payload capacity. We’ve started doing some early stage testing of that platform as another potential option because we realized that these all-electric drones have limited battery life,” Will said. The next generation of aerial vehicle will allow the conservation workers to travel to very remote islands and conduct eight hours of continuous operations, without having to worry about recharging battery packs.
Will said the non-profit organization also is looking into other aerial technological solutions for even more ambitious projects. These include products made by Parallel Flight Technologies, a California-based company, which specializes in hybrid gas/electric aerial platforms. Another potential technology provider is Syos Aerospace, a New Zealand-based company, which is developing — in conjunction with the New Zealand Department of Conservation — an uncrewed helicopter, with a 200-kilogram (440-pound) payload capacity.
Island Conservation is also working with DJI and other companies that produce agricultural spraying drones to see if they can configure their products to distribute the large conservation bait pellet uses in invasive species eradication. “The biggest limiting factor for those has just been the design of the spreaders, which have been optimized for very small granular pellets or for fertilizer, whereas the product we’re developing is a large cereal-grain pellet.”
Ram said the recent improvements in drone technology are helping to create more affordable user-friendly drone products, thus lowering the barriers of entry for the people of small island communities with modest budgets, who want to employ the aerial vehicles in their home-grown conservation projects.
“Drone manufacturers have really been leaning into the accessibility of drones and making them really easy to use, which really democratizes the technology,” she said. “They can get drones into the hands of people who want to use them with relative ease.”
Jim Magill is a Houston-based writer with almost a quarter-century of experience covering technical and economic developments in the oil and gas industry. After retiring in December 2019 as a senior editor with S&P Global Platts, Jim began writing about emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, robots and drones, and the ways in which they’re contributing to our society. In addition to DroneLife, Jim is a contributor to Forbes.com and his work has appeared in the Houston Chronicle, U.S. News & World Report, and Unmanned Systems, a publication of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has penned over 3,000 articles focused on the commercial drone space and is an international speaker and recognized figure in the industry. Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.
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