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Living Sanibel: Send in the drones

By Staff | Feb 4, 2015

Right now, across the planet, there is a revolution occurring – technology is finding its wings. The merger of flight and microchips will change the face of conservation forever. The drones have arrived. Drones are, in more ways than one, the saviors of wildlife and, more importantly, wild places.

The concept behind UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), commonly referred to as drones, came from the United States military. UAVs flew their first missions in the 1960s over Vietnam. The operations were highly classified. When a drone was shot down and recovered over China, the State Department declined to offer any explanation to Beijing. The military saw the potential of drones early on but didn’t admit to having or using them until 1973.

Military drones still patrol the skies of numerous war zones, ready to identify and, if needed, eliminate terrorists or enemy combatants in seconds. Drones have capabilities that far exceed those of their human pilots. They can see in the dark, they are incredibly stealthy and they can be outfitted with thermal, infrared and ultraviolet vision. The next generation of solar-powered UAVs may be capable of remaining in the air for months, if not years. Drones never pose a risk to the pilot, who can sit 12,000 miles away in a secure, air-conditioned command center. Compared to risking a human life in the battlefield, drones are incredibly cheap.

In the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is struggling with how to regulate the commercial cousins of these newcomers to the sky. In September of this year the FAA is expected to establish new regulations regarding the ever-increasing array of drones. The demand for UAV technology in agriculture, forestry, oil exploration and hundreds of other sectors will help prompt the FAA to build a flexible set of guidelines. With the predicted increase in UAV traffic, there is little doubt that in the not-too-distant future, drone accidents will kill or injure humans. But many more lives and wildlife will be saved by UAVs than will be lost.

In Africa, where poaching of the last remnants of the worlds’ charismatic megafauna has reached pandemic proportions, the drone wars are just getting started. Over the past decade, both white and black rhinos have been methodically killed in the 36,000 square miles of wilderness that is called the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park. The death toll from illegal harvesting of their horns has risen from 333 in 2010 to an astonishing 1,215 in 2014. At the current rate of slaughter, both the black and white rhino will be extinct inside of 10 years. In Africa, there simply isn’t time to wait for FAA approval.

Although most of the drones flying over Africa today are unarmed, I foresee a day when the military applications of drone technology can find a place in the preservation of endangered species. The poachers who are sawing off rhino horns in Africa use helicopters, armed militias and have killed hundreds of park rangers over the past 10 years. The most recent gun battle between rangers and poachers occurred on Jan. 5, when two poachers were shot and killed by Kruger rangers. With a single horn worth as much as $250,000, the killing, de-horning and eventual sale is comparable to a major bank heist. With that kind of bounty on their heads, how long can we expect these rhinos to survive?

Without using drone technology, finding a solitary helicopter landing across more than 2.3 million acres is nigh impossible. By deploying a stationary, self-sustaining drone at 15,000 feet (they can fly to 60,000 feet), the task of detecting and responding to poachers becomes much more manageable.

In the near future, when an unauthorized helicopter lands in Kruger National Park, a part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, it will be spotted by the high altitude drone using infrared or heat-sensitive cameras. To verify the fact that it is a poaching operation, rangers would direct the low orbit drones to the GPS coordinates where the chopper has landed. Using night vision technology, these smaller machines could quickly confirm a half-dozen bandits were headed toward a black rhino 200 yards north in heavy cover. Upon confirmation, the high-altitude drone could fire a small but deadly laser-guided missile to take out the helicopter and its pilot. Now, not only would the rangers have the exact coordinates of the criminals — the explosion would be seen for hundreds of miles across the dark veld. The poachers would find themselves in a lion-infested jungle with armed rangers en route, the tables turned. It wouldn’t take many events like that before the poachers thought twice about flying off in search of rhino horns or ivory.

The use of drones in wildlife conservation does not stop at preventing illegal poaching. In Borneo, where counting the endangered orangutans in the dense canopies of the rain forest is nearly impossible, low-altitude drones would be able to scan hundreds of miles of impenetrable jungle in hours. Coupled with advances in facial recognition technology, these machines could make these counts far less costly and way more accurate. Higher-altitude drones could readily detect illegal logging or the un-permitted expansion of palm oil plantations throughout Indonesia.

In the inhospitable terrain of Antarctica, drones may be used to monitor penguin populations, keep track of whales and more importantly, illegal whaling. They could be used to keep an eye on caribou herds or polar bears as climate change continues to threaten the food chains of the high arctic on the other end of the world.

Locally, drones could be used to monitor how many chicks are in osprey or eagle nests. They could catch boats speeding through established no-wake manatee zones, or hover over offshore reefs to prevent the illegal harvesting of goliath grouper by commercial fisherman. Drones could monitor changes in water quality such as red tide and algal blooms. Within the next 10 years, the advances in drone technology will make them an indispensable tool for saving what’s left.

Of course, there is an undeniable Big Brother aspect to drones. With digital recording abilities, they can also be used to spy on us. The thought of being watched by the all-seeing eye reminds us more of the Dark Lord Sauron in “The Lord of the Rings” than the potential savior of wilderness. That is a risk we have to take. Unlike corrupt officials, machines record unfiltered data that is hard to deny or destroy.

In the end, we are all nearing a place in time where our machines will be more trustworthy than their makers. That is the sad truth of the human footprint.

Charles Sobczak will be giving a Power Point presentation titled: “The Human Footprint” at CROW, 3883 Sanibel-Captiva Road, on Feb. 17 at 4 p.m. Please call CROW at (239) 472-3644 for additional information.