26 May 2017

Monitoring biodiversity using drone technology

The use of flying 'drones' to monitor changes in biodiversity and ecosystems is becoming more common.

Paolo Paron showing members of the local community live drone images of the Mara Wetland, Tanzania © Joseph Ouko
Paolo Paron showing members of the local community live drone images of the Mara Wetland, Tanzania © Joseph Ouko
By Chris Magero, Justine Dossa and Ademola Ajagbe

Two women, suddenly aware of a buzzing sound airborne, frantically look up to the sky. They jump from their seat, trying to dodge this invading gadget. The invader is a 'drone', currently being used for wetland monitoring and is harmless after all.

Some call it Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). Others call it Remotely Piloted Aerial System (RPAS) or Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS). Everyone knows it as drone. Drones are flying robots that are remotely controlled or can fly autonomously using a software controlled plan. From an evolution point of view, one can be tempted to think drones are hybrids of aircrafts with supersonic engines, or common toys that keep toddlers busy. Drones have proliferated both military and civil worlds, coming in different shapes, sizes and capabilities. Their functionalities are almost endless: from intelligence gathering to missile attack, herding livestock, and even delivery of orders – one can only imagine! The benefits of drones are increasingly gaining traction in biodiversity conservation. Two BirdLife led projects in West and East Africa are using drones for aerial assessment of impenetrable wetland ecosystem and bird populations, respectively.

BirdLife and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – Institute for Higher Education (UNESCO IHE) are implementing a PREPARED USAID project on promoting the sustainable management of the Mara wetland. Through this project, an Integrated Management Plan for the wetland is being developed. In order to do so, there is need for a good understanding of the wetland resources, the threats faced by direct and perceived impacts, as well as their impact on livelihoods.

The Mara wetland in northern Tanzania is the largest wetland in the Lake Victoria basin, covering approximately 500 Km2. The area is an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA) supporting several species of birds, mammals, insects, fish and plants and support vital ecosystem services.

Aerial Shot of the Mara Wetland using the drone © Paolo Paron – UNESCO IHE

Paolo Paron (Senior Lecturer in Hydraulic Engineering and River Basin Development) of UNESCO IHE has been conducting aerial surveys of water and land resources for many years using the drone technology. The survey of the Mara wetland has involved visiting sites and developing transects over the wetland and on its margins where farming is prevalent. The drone is programmed and is able to fly along these transects taking images of the wetland from a height of 200 – 400m. These images are able to provide an excellent resolution of the resources in the area of interest; it can show individual papyrus or typha plants. With this detail, one can model the changes in land cover and land use over time.

The two ladies, now looking over Paolo’s shoulder are amazed at what they see on the tablet and admit that they thought they were under attack by a foreign object. We take a moment to explain to them how this mapping works and they are absolutely thrilled. More at the prospects of an object flying in the air without a pilot on board - the future of resource monitoring and technology.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter!

The drone before flight © Joseph Ouko/BirdLife

Equipped with a high-definition camera, a drone is the ideal tool for monitoring biodiversity in areas difficult to access and counting animal populations in particular. For the BirdLife International seabird project in West Africa – the Alcyon project, 2015 is the first time that we are experiencing this new technology for the overall counting of our amazing Laridae colonies. The Veda Consultancy team,contracted to support this work for the Alcyon project, was able to try out the new technique with the drone Phantom II which flew  dozens of metres high over all the Laridae colonies; in particular, those of Royal Terns on all the main nesting sites from Mauritania to Guinea, which allowed amazing views of the colonies.

“It was exciting to see the consulting team successfully conclude this regional census by trialling our new, remote-operated drone-mounted cameras, ”said Justine Dossa, BirdLife’s Alcyon Project Manager.

She added that: “The simultaneous comprehensive census of seabird colonies nesting along the West African coastline from Mauritania to Guinea was carried out with great success.” The team flew the drone over tern colonies up and down the West Africa coast, and were able to get amazing views and great data to support efforts at identifying marine IBAs.

A scientific article currently being prepared, will analyse the astonishing results obtained using the drones for a census for the first time in the sub-region compared to census results obtained until now using the usual contemporary counting methods. The second round of this global drone counting is now done, harmonising the seabird global counting cycle with that of other international initiatives such as Africa-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement and Wadden Sea Flyway Initiative.