Lian Pin Koh is an associate professor at the University of Adelaide as well as an entrepreneur. Two years ago he founded ConservationDrones.org, and in its short history it has already worked with hundreds of NGOs, researchers, and government officials in more than a dozen countries to collect environmental data using low-cost drones as known as unmanned aerial aircraft (UAV).
Ironically, Koh told Yales’s Environment360 in an interview that at first, his idea and his company was not taken very seriously,” that’s changing, he says. Koh told e360web editor Crystal Gammon that advances in aerial equipment and technology have made drones a key part of conservation strategies for marine reserves, rainforests, and many other landscapes, mostly in the developing world.
“In just the last couple of months,” he says, “there has been tremendous interest from universities and other research institutes that finally see the value in this technology.
When asked what led him to start Conservation Drones, Koh explained that The initial motivation was really about necessity. [Ecologist] “Serge Wich and I – we cofounded ConservationDrones.org – have been working in southeast Asia for quite some time, and Serge has been studying orangutans in Sumatra for the last 20 years. One day we started talking about the challenges of studying orangutans in the rainforest of Sumatra, and because I had been flying remote-controlled airplanes as a hobby, I suggested to him that we try to fly these planes with cameras attached over the forest. I thought maybe we could get good photos of the forests, and potentially even snap a few pictures of orangutans or their nests. Normally when I tell people such ideas they would not take me very seriously, but Serge was very enthusiastic – mainly because he was facing real difficulty getting funding to continue his work.”
Koh added that in conflict zones or areas commonly visited by poachers, such as Nepal or parts of India, poachers would be armed most of the time. If conservation researchers were working in these areas they would be in constant risk of coming into contact with these people, and you never know what would happen – their lives might be at risk. By having UAVs collect the data, the biologist would avoid many of these risks.
Conservation Drones’ first project was to find a cheaper way to monitor orangutan populations in Sumatra. Traditionally people have to walk the forest on foot and count the nests in the forest canopy, and from those counts they estimate the population of orangutans. There have been efforts to fly small manned aircraft and count the nests from above, but it’s very expensive to hire an aircraft. Many times pilots wouldn’t even want to fly because it’s quite risky — there’s no way to land the aircraft in case of any emergencies. So Conservation Drones has been flying UAVs over the rainforest in Sumatra and have managed to get very high-resolution images of these nests. The resolutions can be as high as 1 to 2 centimeters per pixel, which allows conservation biologists not just to count the nests, but also see what kinds of twigs they are using to build the nest, what kind of leaves, possibly even estimate how long the nests have been left in the tree – all sorts of information biologists had never had before.