Saving the Australian Landscape, One Drone at a Time

drone in flight
by Matt Sayer

Drones in Australia are helping to protect a threatened wallaby species, Great Barrier Reef corals, the dugong manatee and vast swaths of land.

European colonists were dazzled by the Australian Yellow-footed Rock-wallaby’s pelt, hunting it to near extinction. Introduced predators like wild foxes and feral cats brought the species even closer to the brink, struggling to survive.

Wildlife conservation efforts have long faced one major problem: no one really knows where the wallaby is. Best estimates of its current habitat are vague, encompassing an area too large for humans to search.

Australian Yellow-footed Rock wallaby
Australian Yellow-footed Rock wallaby.

Associate Professor Lian Pin Koh of the University of Adelaide believes technology can provide a cheaper, more effective solution to protecting the environment.

That’s why the South Australia Department of Environment, Water, and Natural Resources (DEWNR) turned to drones.

Koh co-founded a worldwide initiative called Conservation Drones to raise awareness.

“There’s great potential for drones here because of the vast expanse of land that we have in Australia,” he said.

bushlands of south Australia
Mapping the bushlands of South Australia using a multi-rotor drone. Photo courtesy of Lian Pin Koh.

With the ability to fly over otherwise impassable terrain, equipped with thermal imaging cameras, robotic arms, and VHF tracking systems, drones are helping conservationists like Koh understand and protect the environment in ways they never could before.

With innovations like the recently released Falcon 8+, drones are not only becoming more streamlined, but also more precise where it matters most to conservationists.

“Our simplified drones are offering a method to capture data in 3D in an increasingly automated manner,” explained Intel’s General Manager of UAV Segment Data, Jan Stumpf. “The Falcon 8+ for instance, provides detailed structural analysis with pinpoint accuracy.”

But these days, drones are doing much more than protecting Australian wallabies when it comes to environmental conservation.

Containing The Spread of Buffel Grass

Off the northwest coast of Western Australia on Barrow Island, a dangerous invasive weed called Buffel grass is destroying the local ecosystem. Because it has taken over so much land already, simply razing it all is not an option.

But with drones, there’s a preventive solution.

Felipe Gonzalez, Associate Professor and head of the Airborne Systems Lab at Queensland University of Technology, is using drones to scan at-risk areas.

The images captured by the drones are fed into machine-learning algorithms that can identify the Buffel grass. The data helps conservationists more accurately predict where and how fast it will spread, so they can plan the most effective retaliation.

Australian landscape
Drone koala rescue. Photo courtesy of Felipe Gonzalez.

Gonzalez calls the drawbacks of manually collecting samples the 3 Ds: Dirty, Dull, and Dangerous.

“It’s dangerous or difficult for people to get to those areas. If you were to do surveys on the ground, you have limited sampling points. But with this, we can take 50, 100, 1000 images of an area. It’s three orders of magnitudes of the amount of data.”

Gonzalez’s research isn’t limited to Buffel grass, either.

“The methods that we develop can be applied to different National Parks in other parts of Australia,” he said.

Studying Corals on the Great Barrier Reef

Dr. Karen Joyce works in the Great Barrier Reef, using her drones as an eye-in-the-sky that can avoid everything from the mangroves to the crocodiles.

The new technology allows her to stitch together images that map out coral, algae, sand and other underwater features to measure their health. With thermal cameras, Joyce can measure ocean temperatures and predict how corals will react.

Depending on the project she’s working on, Joyce flies the 3D Robotics Solo with a sensor payload in its accessory bay. For bigger jobs Joyce uses Aeronavics drones: the Bot, with a DSLR/thermal camera attached, and an Icon that was specially modified to carry up to 77 lbs of high-performance imaging sensors.

“We’ve been doing this with satellites for years, but the data from a drone provides so much more detail,” Joyce explained.

dugong manatee
Dugong manatee. Photo courtesy of Ahmed Shawky

Protecting the Endangered Dugong Manatee

Being a marine biologist is tough.

Underwater expeditions are costly and fraught with danger. Studies conducted from the safety of a boat are also slow and lack depth. For Dr. Amanda Hodgson of Murdoch University, neither was adequate for studying a threatened species like the dugong manatee.

Until recently, Hodgson had to rely on data collected from manned aerial surveys, which required planes to fly low and slow to record findings. Aside from introducing human error into the equation, these manned surveys also put the crew at risk. That’s why Hodgson jumped at the chance to work with drones.

While manned surveys only recorded the number of dugongs spotted, drone images allow for fine-scale identification of the various types of dugong and even tracks their movements through the ocean.

The use of drones also gave Hodgson access into hard to reach areas like the Kimberley in the north of Western Australia where planes can’t even attempt to fly.

“This gave us the opportunity to get information that we simply couldn’t get before,” said Hodgson. “Drones are providing a much bigger picture to us, from habitat health to human disturbances.”

When it comes to conservation, that’s what it’s all about.


Feature image: Drone in flight, courtesy Felipe Gonzalez.

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