Unmanned Unplugged

Lian Pin Koh, ConservationDrones.org

Lian Pin Koh is a cofounder of Conservationdrones.org, (along with Serge Wich) a project dedicated to sharing knowledge about the use of UAS for conservation and ecological research. Koh’s teams have done research in Sumatra, Madagascar and the Republic of the Congo. He is also an assistant professor at the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Adelaide.

You gave a recent TED talk on using UAS to protect wildlife in Nepal and search for orangutans in Sumatra. Could you give us a bit more background information about the work you did in Nepal? How are you customizing the UAS for use in Nepal? How will they/are they being used?

We have been helping the Directorate of National Parks and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Nepal in the country to develop a UAS for patrolling national parks. They are keen to use this technology to combat wildlife poaching. After several trips to Nepal and working with these partners on the ground, we customized two variants of UAS for them that can be flown completely autonomously from takeoff to landing. They have a smaller UAS that flies for about 20 minutes, and a bigger one that flies for 40 to 50 minutes. They will use these UAS to conduct aerial patrols between existing checkpoints to complement their foot patrols.

What current projects are you working on using UAS? What do you hope to achieve with these projects?

We are currently working on developing a way to use UAS for radio tracking animals in the forest that have been radio-tagged. We think that this application will significantly reduce the cost of monitoring the movement of these animals across a landscape and produce valuable data for ecologists who are interested in their behavior and for conservationists who want to monitor their distribution in real time.



Can you give us an idea of the of cost savings of using UAS? How much do they cost to design, build and fly? How does this compare to other options?

The UAS we build for Nepal and partners in other countries typically cost no more than $3,000-$5,000 to build. Since they are powered by rechargeable lithium-polymer batteries, the operating cost is very low as well. In terms of periodical maintenance, it should cost no more than $1,000-$2,000 a year for spare parts. The overall cost of operating UAS for conservation is thus several orders of magnitude lower than some of the conventional methods of surveying and monitoring wildlife. For example, it cost almost $250,000 to survey orangutans on Sumatra island in Indonesia.

Your background is in conservation ecology. How did you get interested in using UAS for conservation?

I fly remote-controlled aircraft as a hobby. When I met with Serge Wich in 2011, we decided that we should come up with a cost-effective rapid assessment tool for monitoring wildlife in SE Asia before their habitats are converted to oil palm plantations.

What were the first steps you had to take when you started your organization? How did find organizations to partner with and how did they respond to your ideas?

The first thing Serge Wich and I did after hatching this idea of using UAS for conservation was to build our own prototype and tested that out in Zurich, Switzerland. After we successfully did that, we sent in an application for a seed grant to the National Geographic/ Waitt Foundation. We also received several donations from zoos around the world that were interested in orangutan conservation. With this funding, we went on a trip to Southeast Asia for the first field test of our prototype UAS. After we returned to Europe and posted some of the video footages from those first missions, we received an overwhelming amount of email queries from fellow researchers and conservation workers who wanted more information about how they could also use UAS for their applications. That was when Serge and I decided that we had to create the ConservationDrones.org website to share what we have learned about building UAS for conservation.

You mentioned that mapping is one of the best applications of UAS technology. What makes UAS ideal for this work? What are the maps used for?

UAS technology can be used to map a landscape at a very low cost to researchers relative to the use of satellite images for this purpose. Furthermore, these UAS typically are programmed to fly no more than 300 m above ground, which allows them to operate below the cloud ceiling, which is a problem for acquiring satellite images. These maps can be used for a variety of purposes, including creating land-use classification maps, detecting and counting wildlife, and monitoring expansion of agriculture frontiers.

How do you think UAS will change conservation? Do you see any potential uses for UAS that have not been developed yet?

UAS will change conservation by reducing the cost of doing conservation and research. There are many potential uses that have not been developed yet, including the use of drones for tracking wildlife, and for retrieving images from camera traps placed in the forest.