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Unmanned Drones Used to Count Orangutan Nests

  Lian Pin Koh and Serge Wich with drone
photo courtesy conservationdrones

Note that this post is a departure as the project is not presently supported by Primate Conservation, Inc. (PCI). This technology has potential in conserving primates and so is presented here. Dr. Wich is a contributor to All The World’s Primates for orangutans and Thomas’ Langur. He has also reviewed proposals on PCI’s behalf.

Adapted from an article by Lian Pin Koh (ETH Zurich) and Serge Wich (Liverpool John Moores University) for the Orangutan Conservancy

The distribution and density of orangutan nests, critical to conservation efforts, have traditionally been obtained by costly and time consuming ground surveys. High resolution satellite imagery that might serve the same purpose has been too costly or simply unavailable.

But Researchers Lian Pin Koh and Serge Wich proposed what seemed at first to be a wild idea: conservation drones. The researchers have tested the conservation drones above orangutan habitat in Sumatra and Sabah (Borneo). The aim of these tests was to determine whether the system could really detect orangutan’s nests. The results are in and it can!

Conservation Drones are inexpensive, autonomous and operator-friendly unmanned aerial vehicles for surveying and mapping forests and biodiversity. They are able to fly pre-programmed missions autonomously for a total flight time of up to ~50 minutes and over a distance of ~25 km. Depending on the camera system installed, these drones can record videos at up to 1080 pixel resolution, and acquire aerial photographs of <10 cm pixel resolution. Aerial photographs can be stitched together to produce near real-time geo-referenced land use/cover maps of surveyed areas.

In addition the images from the drone are of a high enough resolution that one can easily distinguish land cover and land use including forests, corn fields, plantations, logging, fires, small roads, mining, banana plantings, etc. The drone approach therefore seems extremely promising as a tool in orangutan conservation and we look forward developing this further in close collaboration with our partners.

  detail of an orangutan nest as seen from the air
photo courtesy conservationdrones

Although Wich and Koh conceived of the idea of the conservation drone while discussing orangutan research and conservation, the drones are now being tested in various countries for a whole range of projects. As Dr. Wich explains, “A main aim of our work is to share our knowledge for building low-cost Conservation Drones to help conservation workers and researchers in developing countries do their jobs a lot more effectively and cost efficiently.” Visit the Conservation Drone Project website for more details on this high-flying project. Details from the Orangutan Conservancy here.

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