In 2011, two scientists, one American and one Dutch, met in Switzerland over coffee with a gripe familiar within the field of wildlife conservation. Animals in big countries get roped off in national parks and zoos. But monitoring species in the developing world, especially countries along the ecologically-rich equator, is much less tenable. Scientists in those places had few resources. The local NGOs had small staffs and even smaller budgets.
Conservation work is often a discipline of question marks. Before you start saving the whales and protecting the forest, researchers need to ask the basics: Where are the spots where the animals prefer to live and breed? From there, strategies to restrict poaching or fishing are developed. After that, policy makers discuss where to draw the boundaries of a national park or wildlife sanctuary.
The two scientists, Lian Pin Koh, a conservation ecologist, and Serge Wich, a primate biologist (who’s work has been sponsored by the National Geographic Society), had something else in common, too. Both of them were skilled at flying unmanned aerial vehicles, or model airplanes. These are not the type you’d make in detention folded out of a piece of notebook paper, but planes with motors and navigation systems. They’re drones.
The technology behind planes that are piloted remotely has been around since the Vietnam War, when the U.S. Navy ran secret missions to collect photo intelligence. Drone innovation picked up after the turn of the century, when governments, especially the United States, realized the aircraft could be used as autonomous weapons, delivering artillery with little operator risk and extreme accuracy.
After it takes off, the plane will fly over 30 square kilometers of remote jungle looking for signs of orangutans.
The moral and legal knots of drone warfare have yet to be worked out. The planes have, however, been indisputably good at accomplishing risky missions. So effective, in fact, that Lian Pin and Serge realized they could co-opt drones. Without the missile technology, they could be put to use for saving rare animals.
Deep within Gunung Leuser National Park, in the remote rain forest of northern Sumatra, Indonesia, both men are plotting the upcoming mission for the small plane sitting between them. The aircraft is about the length of a surfboard and is outfitted with a GPS system and high definition camera. After it takes off, it’ll fly over 30 square kilometers of remote jungle looking for signs of wild orangutans.
Several NGOs that work to protect orangutans asked the two scientists—who are now the leaders of a nonprofit called Conservation Drones—to come help them map some of the most remote land on the planet. The number of orangutans, a species of great ape that lives most of its life in tree canopies, has fallen precipitously in the region. There used to be about 300,000 in Sumatra and Borneo, only two places on Earth where orangutans live outside of zoos. Now there are thought to be less than 50,000.
Their habitat has slowly been taken over by developers eager to turn palm trees into palm oil, a key ingredient in many south Asian foods. Since 1990, fertile slices of Gunung Leuser National Park have been given away to oil producers. Data from the drones will help the NGOs develop an educated count of the species and discover where they’re most likely to congregate. With the images, they’ll be able to petition the government to draw a red line against development in certain areas.
“Now we wait,” Serge says, moments after the drone launches and is out of sight. Guided by a computer program, the aircraft will fly transects, small routes back and forth over dense forests as it snaps birds-eye photos. The entire process is so automated everyone sits down cross-legged in the middle of the jungle, looking occasionally at a nearby computer screen for the location of the plane.
Thirty minutes later, the aircraft comes within sight again. Technically it doesn’t even have wheels, so landings can be the most risky part. Someone usually scouts the softest place where it can crash, perhaps in a nearby bush or a field of grass. When it hits the ground, everyone rushes over to dissect it, pulling out the camera and disconnecting the battery.
Slowly, the images—about 900 of them, one taken every 2 seconds—pop up on a screen. A mapping program stitches them together into a fine mosaic of jungle. It’s a little like Google Earth, but about 30 times more detail. Each pixel on the screen accounts for two centimeters of Earth.
The only way to get better detail, the researchers explain, is to traverse the same area on foot, making notes and taking photos. “The fact that we can do this for just a few thousand dollars is extremely helpful for our monitoring,” says Dave Dellatore, a program manager for the Sumatran Orangutan Society, one of the NGOs working on primate conservation. A good map can be a good storytelling device. If one doesn’t exist, the only other option is to make your own.
Serge Wich’s work developing drones for conservation was sponsored in part by a grant from the National Geographic Society.