Unmanned “Unplugged”

Nigel Butcher, Centre for Conservation Science

Nigel Butcher is a technical development officer at the Centre for Conservation Science in the U.K. His research uses UAS to study birds and wildlife and help protect the environment. Increasing Human Potential recently had the opportunity to talk to Butcher and learn more about his projects and research.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Centre for Conservation Science speaks out for birds and wildlife, tackling the problems that threaten our environment. Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you came to work there?

I studied electronic engineering, and my interest in birds had been resurrected by my girlfriend at the time – now wife – and her parents. I had been looking at RSPB jobs and saw one in the local paper titled technical development officer, and after reading the small print, which mentioned a background in electronics, decided it was the job for me.

What sort of work and research are you currently conducting?

My work is varied and involves anything electronic associated with bird monitoring and protection. The RSPB has a large research department [Centre for Conservation Science] for which the majority of my time is spent. I also get involved with other parts of the organization like our species protection team.

A lot of the work revolves around tracking technologies, but I do lots of video and audio stuff too. A recent project has included development of video tags for seabirds, which take snapshots of video and a GPS location so we can understand what birds are up to at specific locations at sea. Currently more work is being done to improve some of our GPS tracking devices using radio and GSM technology to relay the data.

Basically we get a prototype together and test it, and, if successful, then the equipment is handed to our biologists for their use.

Your background is in the design and development of electronic devices, specifically remote monitoring equipment. How are unmanned systems useful in your work?

The UAV work we have been doing is very much a proof of concept thing and an attempt to maximize the applications that our hexacopter can be used for. Using UAVs to monitor species in places that are difficult to access such as reed beds and cliff ledges has proved very advantageous. All of the work I have undertaken so far has been on our nature reserves within the U.K., but a colleague has been using a fixed wing to do some quality of forest assessments of Harapan in Indonesia.

You’ve said that while cameras have been used for many years to collect data at birds’ nests, recent advances in digital technology have led to increased storage capacity, faster and easier review of data, and reduced power consumption. How do UAS play a role in this? What do unmanned systems offer over traditional data collection methods?

Nest cameras have been used on many of our more easy to reach species in order to gain information on their success or to monitor 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We will always need to do individual birds, but our UAS with a GoPro or even a thermal imager aboard allows us to monitor what is happening during the day or night on a much bigger scale. We can stitch the images together to see exactly how many of a species in a colony there are in trees, on a cliff or on the ground. This will save us a lot of time and will allow us to measure some species more accurately than we currently are able to.

How did you get involved using unmanned systems in your research?

I was talking to an ex-colleague about them in 2012 and decided to go out and get a hexacopter frame and assemble it to see how it performed and how useful it would be. With a limited budget, I have just been adding to what we have ever since, little by little.

As this technology continues to develop, how do you foresee it being used by researchers in the future? What do you see as its greatest benefit?

Many surveys and censuses of colonial nesting birds will be undertaken with UAVs, especially species like penguins and seabirds. Aerial photos and habitat mapping are also important to managers in order to monitor how their sites are developing.

The greatest benefit that I can see is it reduces our disturbance of the birds themselves, as a quick flyover is far better than having a number of people traipsing across a site.

What does that future hold for you and unmanned systems? Do you have any exciting projects planned? What would you like to do next?

I would like to use it more for our telemetry work, where the terrain means we can’t detect our tagged birds easily. By sending a receiver and antenna up to 100 meters, our tag detection range is much improved.

The CAA regulations are quite tight, and we follow them very closely, but we are looking to get an autopilot system so we can search an area a little bit more thoroughly for locating nests.