Yesterday, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife announced that it will be teaming up with students from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University to count cormorants using unmanned aerial vehicles – aka drones.
The state is hoping two drones being developed at the university will go where other aircraft can’t – out into harsh conditions at Pacific City’s Haystack Rock – to get a better picture of the double-crested cormorant population size. Cormorants like to eat young salmon and steelhead, and ODFW is studying the population to gauge what impact the birds have on migratory fish.
The unmanned aircraft will be launched from Cape Kiwanda State Natural Area later this week for testing. It will fly autonomously along flight paths plotted ahead of time with GPS coordinates. The flights will be monitored on a laptop computer, with a radio-control pilot standing by to take over if something goes wrong. The craft is equipped with a smartphone that will take photographs and save the images with their GPS coordinates.
Using drones to count the birds is pretty crafty – especially because right now scientists are only able to get aerial photos once a year from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s manned flights along the entire Oregon Coast.
“Our hope is that with unmanned aircraft we will be able to do a better job of monitoring the cormorant colonies,” said Lindsay Adrean, ODFW’s avian predation coordinator. “It would be nice to be able to get this kind of information week-to-week and we think (unmanned aerial vehicles) may give us that capability.”
As Patrick Currier, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Embry-Riddle noted in a news release, “drones have been getting a lot of bad press lately.”
But clearly not all drones are used for spying and launching military attacks. They can be a very cost-effective way of studying wildlife and their habitat. In fact, U.S. Geological Survey has a whole department dedicated to bringing drones off the battlefield and into the ecosystem.
Adrean said she sees potential for drones to help the state with waterfowl, elk and fishing surveys in the future. Here are five other ways unmanned vehicles are giving us a better view of the environment:
1. Counting Salmon Nests
Idaho Power invested $16,000 into drones that can count salmon nests in tributaries and streams. The number of salmon nests is a good indicator of salmon habitat and salmon population health, but in remote areas it can be challenging and dangerous for scientists to fly in for surveys.
2. Finding Threatened Species Habitat
Researchers at Boise State University and Washington State University are using drones to find pygmy rabbit and sage grouse habitat. Both species are being studied for possible protection under the Endangered Species Act, and scientists are using drones to learn about what kind of habitat the species are currently using. That way, they know what kind of habitat to protect and restore to help the species survive. In the case of the pygmy rabbit habitat survey, one researcher said the drone allows the team to cover 10 times more ground than they otherwise would.
3. Protecting Wildlife From Poaching
The World Wildlife Fund developed drones that can patrol remote areas for poaching and other illegal activities. They’re being tested in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park, where the endangered Bengal tiger and Indian rhinoceros are threatened by poachers.
4. Documenting Dam Removal
The National Park Service, USGS, and the Bureau of Reclamation are using drones to watch how the Elwha River is changing after the world’s largest dam removal project. A primary goal of the dam removal was to restore salmon habitat. Scientists knew removing the Elwha River dams would cause sediment erosion and changes in the river channel, but they weren’t sure exactly where or when the changes would occur.
“Because this is the first dam removal on such a large scale, there are presently uncertainties about how rapidly, and in what patterns, sediment will erode from the reservoirs and move downstream,” the feds report. “Many of those uncertainties can be answered by using aerial over flights, including those from unmanned aircraft systems, to monitor changes in the reservoirs and river channel.”
5. Putting Eyes Underwater
As OPB’s EarthFix has reported, underwater unmanned robots are doing a lot of heavy lifting for researchers studying the environmental impacts of oil spills and ocean acidification. Are they technically drones? I’m not sure.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is hoping to use a drone called the Puma to find tsunami debris washing ashore from last year’s giant quake in Japan.
And just last month, a group of designers announced their vision for a new drone that could help clean up the Pacific Garbage Patch.