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The use of conservation drones in ecology and wildlife research

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Conservation drones are remote-controlled devices capable of collecting information from difficult-to-access places while minimizing disturbance. Although drones are increasingly used in many research disciplines, their application to wildlife research remains to be explored in depth. This paper reports on the use of Phantom 2 Vision+ for monitoring areas in two national parks in South Korea. The first research area was conducted in Chiaksan National Park, and the second in Taeanhaean National Park. The aim of this research is to introduce ecologists and researchers alike to conservation drones and to show how these new tools have are fundamentally helping in the development of natural sciences. We also obtained photographs and videos of monitoring areas within our test site. © 2015 The Ecological Society of Korea. All rights are reserved.
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J. Ecol. Environ. 38(1): 113-118, 2015
113
pISSN: 2287-8327 eISSN: 2288-1220
JOURNAL OF
ECOLOGY AND ENVIRONMENT
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2015 The Ecological Society of Korea. All rights are reserved.
The use of conservation drones in ecology and wildlife research
Bojana Ivoševi
ć
1
, Yong-Gu Han
1, 2
, Youngho Cho
1, 2
and Ohseok Kwon
1, 2,
*
1
School of Applied Biosciences, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Kyungpook National University, Daegu 702-701, Korea
2
Institute for Phylogenomics and Evolution, Kyungpook National University, Daegu 702-701, Korea
Abstract
Conservation drones are remote-controlled devices capable of collecting information from difficult-to-access places
while minimizing disturbance. Although drones are increasingly used in many research disciplines, their application
to wildlife research remains to be explored in depth. This paper reports on the use of Phantom 2 Vision+ for monitoring
areas in two national parks in South Korea. The first research area was conducted in Chiaksan National Park, and the sec-
ond in Taeanhaean National Park. The aim of this research is to introduce ecologists and researchers alike to conservation
drones and to show how these new tools have are fundamentally helping in the development of natural sciences. We also
obtained photographs and videos of monitoring areas within our test site.
Key words: drone, ecology, Phantom 2 Vision+, Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), wildlife
BACKGROUND
Drones are robotic planes, also known as unmanned
aerial vehicles (UAVs), unmanned aircraft systems (UAS)
and remotely piloted aircrafts (RPAs). They have evolved
and developed rapidly over the past decade, after being
driven primarily for military and civilian purposes. Al-
though they have a military background, it has now be-
come clear that there are a lot of other areas where they
might prove useful. Although they still remain to be fully
developed and researched, unmanned aerial vehicles
(UAV) will soon be an important commercial tool for
monitoring purposes (Getzin et al. 2012).
A drone can provide a low-cost and low-impact solu-
tion to environmental managers working in a variety of
ecosystems. Drones used for these purposes are referred
to as eco-drones” or conservation drones.Their agility
and image quality abilities make them advantageous as
a mapping tool for environmental monitoring, but there
are still several challenges and concerns to be surmount-
ed (Harriman and Muhlhausen 2013).
The use of robots in ecology
The use of robots in ecology is still in the infancy stage
of development. However, the recent popularity of drones
has developed a number of research groups around the
world who are working diligently to develop as many dif-
ferent uses for these small machines as possible. Their
most frequent application so far has been for monitoring
previously inaccessible areas and for creating a map of
the wildlife that lives there.
Ecology has only flourished as an area of research in the
last 50 years, once the impact of global change became
evident on both the lives of animals and those of humans
as well. Researchers have since developed methods in
ecology to monitor and help understand the impact of
ongoing global change, improve the Earths biodiversity
system, and predict the future trends of ecology and its
development. In order to achieve these goals, the Earth
must be monitored through a complete, accurate and
rapid collection of data, which can now be done very ef-
ficiently with the help of drones.
Received
16 January 2015,
Accepted
10 February 2015
*Corresponding Author
E-mail: ecoento@knu.ac.kr
Tel: +82-53-950-5762
http://dx.doi.org/10.5141/ecoenv.2015.012
Note
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of
the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Licens
(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/) which
permits unrestricted non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any
medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
J. Ecol. Environ. 38(1): 113-118, 2015
http://dx.doi.org/10.5141/ecoenv.2015.012
114
well), and chemical sensors (e.g., pH sensors for detecting
a great variety of gases). With such a detailed apparatus
available, drones have an endless number of uses from
monitoring the smallest ecosystems to analyzing large ar-
eas of land and climate change.
DESCRIPTION OF THE PHANTOM 2 VISION +
The UAV quadcopter named Phantom 2 Vision+ (DJI,
Shenzhen, China), equipped with an autopilot system,
was test-flown in the following study (Fig. 1). This air-
frame is capable of carrying a camera, which is designed
to record images and videos. A total of 12 flights were con-
ducted between the 4th and 17th September in 2014 for
both flight testing and imagery acquisitions over an open
field area. The purpose of the test flights was to examine
the aircraft’s capabilities and monitor randomly selected
open-land areas within national parks in Korea. More in-
formation about the aircraft specifications is in Table 1
(DJI 2014a).
Autonomous robots, in particular drones, sent to previ-
ously inaccessible areas, have revolutionized data acqui-
sition not only for abiotic parameters, but also for record-
ing the behavior of undisturbed animals and collecting
biological material. Robots will also play an essential role
in population ecology, as they will allow for automatic
census of individuals through image processing, or via
detection of animals that will be electronically marked
(Grémillet et al. 2012).
Conservation drone platform types and charac-
teristics
The conservation drone is a model aircraft fitted with
an autopilot system. The autopilot unit consists of a com-
puter, a GPS, a compass, a barometric altimeter and a few
other sensors. A conservation drone is meant to carry use-
ful payloads such as a video camera and/or photographic
camera. It must also be equipped with a software that
allows the user to program a mission and enable useful
commands and operations.
Drones are categorized according to their size, mobil-
ity, autonomy, equipment and areas of use that they have
been developed for. For example, most drones rely on
well-developed positioning systems, which often use a
GPS receiver or WiFi to follow a predetermined map, or
to free fly with the help of ground control commands.
Underwater drones use acoustic signals that send loca-
tion data back to the researcher and organize a route plan
to follow. Depending on their complexity, some are also
equipped with 3D motion sensors, and can detect and
avoid incoming objects without help from the researcher
(Koh 2013).
When it comes to collecting ecological data, the drones
are equipped with optical sensors (infrared and/or ul-
traviolet light included), physical sensors (temperature,
pressure, humidity and conductivity), acoustic sensors
(mainly for underwater use but can be used on land as
Table 1.
Aircraft specications
Aircraft
Supported Battery DJI 5200 mAh LiPo Battery
Weight (Battery & Propellers Included) 1,284 g
Hover Accuracy (Ready To Fly) Vertical, 0.8 m; Horizontal, 2.5 m
Max Yaw Angular Velocity 200°/s
Max Tiltable Angle 35°
Max Ascent / Descent Speed Ascent, 6 m/s; Descent, 2 m/s
Max Flight Speed 15 m/s (Not Recommended)
Diagonal Motor-Motor Distance 350 mm
Note: this specication information is taken from the website of DJI (DJI 2014a).
Fig. 1.
External appearance of the aircraft Phantom 2 Vision + (DJI 2014).
Conservation drones on ecosystem monitoring
115
http://www.jecoenv.org
Radar positioning and return home
The flight radar displays the current position of the
Phantom 2 Vision+ in relation to the pilot. Exceeding the
control range of the remote control will trigger “Return-
to-Home,” meaning that the Phantom 2 Vision+ will auto-
matically fly back to its takeoff point and land safely (NZ
Camera 2013).
No y zones feature
All unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operators should
abide by all regulations from such organizations as the
ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) and their
own national airspace regulations (Aerial Picture and Vid-
eo 2015). In order to increase flight safety and prevent ac-
cidental flights in restricted areas, the Phantom 2 Vision+
includes a “No Fly Zones” feature to help users use this
product safely and legally. These zones include airports
worldwide and have been divided into two types, A and B.
Type A includes large international airports. For category
A, airports have established 8-km safety zones around
these areas, which can be adjusted through the GPS da-
tabase. In the first 2.4 km away from the safety zone, the
drone will be unable to take off. From 2.4 km to 8 km away
from the restricted area, an increasing high limit has been
established from 2.4 km to 8 km (DJI 2014b). If a vision or
a ground station application is being used, a warning will
be issued in advance if the drone is within 100 m of cat-
egory A safety zone. For category B, which includes much
smaller airports, if the drone is less than 1 km away from
restricted areas, it will be unable to take off. Again, with
the vision or ground station application, the pilot will be
warned in advance if they are within 1 km of entering a
Integral components and characteristics of the
Phantom 2 Vision +
Fig. 2 shows the most important specifications and
serves as an introduction to what the aircraft could later
develop into. Further information can be found on the of-
ficial DJI website.
High performance camera
The Phantom 2 Vision+ carries an extremely high qual-
ity camera and a removable 4GB micro SD card. It shoots
full HD videos at 1080p/30fps and 720p/60fps, providing
the researcher with crystal clear videos and the option for
slow motion shots. Photos are shot at 14 megapixels. A
built-in high precision 3-axis camera stabilization system
insures a smooth flight and absolute control of the aircraft
in the sky (NZ Camera 2013).
Precision ight and stable hovering
The integrated GPS auto-pilot system offers position
holding, altitude lock and stable hovering, ensuring a
constant smooth flight that is more focused on providing
the perfect shot and is less distracted by outside influenc-
es (NZ Camera 2013).
Ground station support
The drone can be programmed with the use of a smart
phone with the 16 waypoint Ground Station system (DJI).
The camera can be tilted up and down, take photos and
shoot videos all while the Phantom 2 Vision+ flies autono-
mously (NZ Camera 2013).
Fig. 2.
Graphical overview of the integral components of the Phantom 2 Vision + (DJI 2014a).
J. Ecol. Environ. 38(1): 113-118, 2015
http://dx.doi.org/10.5141/ecoenv.2015.012
116
and east of its highest peak, Birobong (1,288 m), lies Ho-
engseong-gun and to the west is Wonju-si. Chiaksan Na-
tional Park has many steep valleys among its high peaks
ranging above 1,000 m such as Namdaebong in the south
and Maehwasan in the north, and is known for having
beautiful scenery with steep slopes. Chiaksan National
Park has a total of 821 species of plants and is expanding
its natural forest with Mongolian oaks and Japanese oaks.
As for its inhabitants, there are a total of 2,364 animal
species including 34 endangered species such as the fly-
ing squirrel and copper-winged bat (Korea National Park
Service 2009a). The second test site was located in Taean-
haean National Park (Fig. 4). Taeanhaean National Park
was designated as the 13th national park in Korea in 1978.
There are 26 beaches along the 230 km coastline, which
encompasses the Taean Peninsula and Anmyeondo. The
category B safety zone. The update will also prevent the
drone from setting up the waypoints within 8 km of safety
zones. The map showing waypoints safety areas can be
found on the webpage dji.com/fly-safe (DJI 2014a).
UAV TEST FLIGHT
Test sites were located in two national parks in South
Korea. The main aim of these missions was to obtain pho-
tographs and videos of monitoring areas within our test
site, and to test how the drone would behave under differ-
ent working conditions. The first test site was situated in
the mountain inlands of Korea at Chiaksan National Park
(Fig. 3), which was designated as the 16th national park in
Korea in December 1984. Its total area is about 181.6 km²,
Fig. 3.
Example of the drone using its high denition camera to monitor land from above.
Fig. 4.
Coastal areas remain untouched as the drone ies over them to record the land and species that live there.
Conservation drones on ecosystem monitoring
117
http://www.jecoenv.org
only a glimpse of what can be achieved with drones and
how they can be applied to other fields of research. How-
ever, this paper also hopes to serve as an inspiration for
new ideas and developments in the future.
Our results are based on two independent protected
regions within national parks in Korea, which are located
several hundred kilometers apart from each other. The
fact that drones were able to record information from
these restricted areas is another proof of their usefulness
in research and how far they can go where humans would
be restricted of access.
A total of 12 flights were conducted in the autumn of
2014 for both flight testing and imagery acquisitions over
open field areas for examining aircraft capabilities and
monitoring the designated areas. Overall, the study has
demonstrated a high potential for predicting biodiversity
in different areas from high-resolution aerial images.
We hope that new methods for biodiversity assess-
ments will be further developed from this research and
that they will inspire strong communications between
researchers around the world. The drones purpose is also
to inform all ecologists of how the entire planet is chang-
ing and what can be expected of it in the future, which is
why teams of drone researchers should be formed in key
points around the world to strengthen communication.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
This subject is supported by the Korea Ministry of En-
vironment (MOE) as a “Public Technology Program based
on Environmental Policy (2014000210003).
parks total area is around 326 km², and ranges across Tae-
an-gun and Boryeong-si. There are 72 islands scattered
across the calm sea of which only four are inhabited by
people. The name “Taean (big comfort)” comes from the
fact that the region did not suffer big natural catastrophes
throughout history, and coupled with the mild climate
and an abundance of food, it made for a non-weary life.
As the only marine park in Korea where various coastal
systems coexist, there is a great value in preserving the
Taeanhaean National Park. The park is home to 1,195 ani-
mal species, 774 plant species, and 671 marine species.
There are also 17 endangered species including Swinhoes
egret, the Korean golden frog, and the otter. There are also
protected natural treasures such as the Mandarin duck,
common kestrel, and osprey (Korea National Park Service
2009b).
RECOMMENDATIONS
A key consideration in developing conservation drones
is their ease of use for non-specialist operators, who would
mainly include conservation workers and field ecologists
(Koh and Wich 2012). The precise and detailed abilities
of the drone enable almost anyone to acquire data from
it, and to apply it to different natural science purposes as
needed. This is an enormous step in the development and
application of UAVs that spans beyond what was initially
imagined by the military. The aim of this research is to in-
troduce conservation drones to ecologists and research-
ers alike and show how these new tools are fundamentally
helping the development of biodiversity monitoring (Fig.
5). The photos and data that have been so far acquired are
Fig. 5.
The animals that live underneath the drones ight remain undisturbed, and yet researchers are still able to record data.
J. Ecol. Environ. 38(1): 113-118, 2015
http://dx.doi.org/10.5141/ecoenv.2015.012
118
Koh LP. 2013. A drone’s-eye view of conservation. https://
www.ted.com/talks/lian_pin_koh_a_drone_s_eye_
view_of_conservation#t-132055. Accessed 05 Septem-
ber 2014.
Koh LP, Wich SA. 2012. Dawn of drone ecology: low-cost
autonomous aerial vehicles for conservation. Trop Con-
serv Sci 5: 121-132.
Korea National Park Service. 2009a. National Parks of Korea-
Chiaksan. http://english.knps.or.kr/Knp/Chiaksan/In-
tro/Introduction.aspx?MenuNum=1&Submenu=Npp.
Accessed 10 August 2014.
Korea National Park Service. 2009b. National Parks of Korea-
Taeanhaean. http://english.knps.or.kr/Knp/Taeanhaean/
Intro/Introduction.aspx?MenuNum=1&Submenu=Npp.
Accessed 20 August 2014.
NZ Camera. 2013. DJI Phantom Vision 2 +. http://www.
nzcamera.co.nz/dji-phantom-2-vision.html. Accessed
19 August 2014.
LITERATURE CITED
Aerial Picture and Video. 2015. The Phantom 2 Vision. http://
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DJI. 2014a. Fly Safe. http://www.dji.com/fly-safe. Accessed
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DJI. 2014b. No Fly Zones. http://www.dji.com/fly-safe/cate-
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Unmanned vehicles/systems (UVs/USs) technology has exploded in recent years. Unmanned vehicles are operated in the air, on the ground, or on/in the water. Unmanned vehicles play a more significant role in many civil application domains, such as remote sensing, surveillance, precision agriculture and rescue operations rather than manned systems. Unmanned vehicles outperform manned systems in terms of mission safety and operational costs. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are widely utilized in the civil infrastructure because of their low maintenance costs, ease of deployment, hovering capability, and excellent mobility. The UAVs can gather photographs faster and more accurately than satellite imagery, allowing for more prompt assessment. This study provides a comprehensive overview of UAV civil applications, including classification and requirements. Also encompassed with research trends, critical civil challenges, and future insights on how UAVs with artificial intelligence (smart AI). Furthermore, this paper discusses the specifications of several drone models and simulators. According to the literature review, precision agriculture is one of the civil applications of smart UAVs. Unmanned aerial vehicles aid in the detection of weeds, crop management, and the identification of plant diseases, among other issues, paving the path for researchers to create drone applications in the future. Drones, Altitude, Flight Mechanics, Applications, Artificial intelligence, Image processing, Machine learning
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Tropical deforestation continues to be a major driver of biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions. Remote sensing technology is increasingly used to assess changes in forest cover, species distributions and carbon stocks. However, satellite and airborne sensors can be prohibitively costly and inaccessible for researchers in developing countries. Here, we describe the development and use of an inexpensive (<$2,000) unmanned aerial vehicle for surveying and mapping forests and biodiversity (referred to as ‘Conservation Drone’ hereafter). Our prototype drone is able to fly pre-programmed missions autonomously for a total flight time of ~25 minutes and over a distance of ~15 km. Non-technical operators can program each mission by defining waypoints along a flight path using an open-source software. This drone can record videos at up to 1080 pixel resolution (high definition), and acquire aerial photographs of <10 cm pixel resolution. Aerial photographs can be stitched together to produce real-time geo-referenced land use/cover maps of surveyed areas. We evaluate the performance of this prototype Conservation Drone based on a series of test flights in Aras Napal, Sumatra, Indonesia. We discuss the further development of Conservation Drone 2.0, which will have a bigger payload and longer range. Initial tests suggest a flight time of ~50 minutes and a range of ~25 km. Finally, we highlight the potential of this system for environmental and conservation applications, which include near real-time mapping of local land cover, monitoring of illegal forest activities, and surveying of large animal species.
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Robots have primarily been developed for warfare, yet they also serve peaceful purposes. Their use in Ecology is in its infancy, but they may soon become essential tools in a broad variety of ecological sub-disciplines. Autonomous robots, in particular drones sent to previously inaccessible areas, have revolutionized data acquisition, not only for abiotic parameters, but also for recording the behavior of undisturbed animals and collecting biological material. Robots will also play an essential role in population Ecology, as they will allow for automatic census of individuals through image processing, or via detection of animals marked electronically. These new technologies will enable automated experimentation for increasingly large sample sizes, both in the laboratory and in the field. Finally, interactive robots and cyborgs are becoming major players in modern studies of animal behavior. Such rapid progress nonetheless raises ethical, environmental, and security issues.
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1. Structural diversity and niche differences within habitats are important for stabilizing species coexistence. However, land-use change leading to environmental homogenization is a major cause for the dramatic decline of biodiversity under global change. The difficulty in assessing large-scale biodiversity losses urgently requires new technological advances to evaluate land-use impact on diversity timely and efficiently across space. 2. While cost-effective aerial images have been suggested for potential biodiversity assessments in forests, correlation of canopy object variables such as gaps with plant or animal diversity has so far not been demonstrated using these images. 3. Here, we show that aerial images of canopy gaps can be used to assess floristic biodiversity of the forest understorey. This approach is made possible because we employed cutting-edge unmanned aerial vehicles and very high-resolution images (7 cm pixel−1) of the canopy properties. We demonstrate that detailed, spatially implicit information on gap shape metrics is sufficient to reveal strong dependency between disturbance patterns and plant diversity (R2 up to 0·74). This is feasible because opposing disturbance patterns such as aggregated and dispersed tree retention directly correspond to different functional and dispersal traits of species and ultimately to different species diversities. 4. Our findings can be used as a coarse-filter approach to conservation in forests wherever light strongly limits regeneration and biodiversity.
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Tropical deforestation continues to be a major driver of biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions. Remote sensing technology is increasingly used to assess changes in forest cover, species distributions and carbon stocks. However, satellite and airborne sensors can be prohibitively costly and inaccessible for researchers in developing countries. Here, we describe the development and use of an inexpensive (<$2,000) unmanned aerial vehicle for surveying and mapping forests and biodiversity (referred to as 'Conservation Drone' hereafter). Our prototype drone is able to fly pre-programmed missions autonomously for a total flight time of ~25 minutes and over a distance of ~15 km. Non-technical operators can program each mission by defining waypoints along a flight path using an open-source software. This drone can record videos at up to 1080 pixel resolution (high definition), and acquire aerial photographs of <10 cm pixel resolution. Aerial photographs can be stitched together to produce real-time geo-referenced land use/cover maps of surveyed areas. We evaluate the performance of this prototype Conservation Drone based on a series of test flights in Aras Napal, Sumatra, Indonesia. We discuss the further development of Conservation Drone 2.0, which will have a bigger payload and longer range. Initial tests suggest a flight time of ~50 minutes and a range of ~25 km. Finally, we highlight the potential of this system for environmental and conservation applications, which include near real-time mapping of local land cover, monitoring of illegal forest activities, and surveying of large animal species.
A new eye in the sky: Eco-drones
  • L Harriman
  • J Muhlhausen
Harriman L, Muhlhausen J. 2013. A new eye in the sky: Eco-drones. http://www.unep.org/pdf/UNEP-GEAS_ MAY_2013.pdf. Accessed 05 September 2014.
National Parks of Korea-Chiaksan
  • Korea National
  • Park Service
DJI Phantom Vision 2 +
  • Nz Camera
NZ Camera. 2013. DJI Phantom Vision 2 +. http://www. nzcamera.co.nz/dji-phantom-2-vision.html. Accessed 19 August 2014.
A drone's-eye view of conservation
  • L P Koh
Koh LP. 2013. A drone's-eye view of conservation. https:// www.ted.com/talks/lian_pin_koh_a_drone_s_eye_ view_of_conservation#t-132055. Accessed 05 September 2014.