Los Amigos in Peru is one of the world’s most diverse natural areas, home to large, fertile swathes of forest, virtually untouched by humans. According to the International Conservation Fund of Canada, it's a place of significant and vital biodiversity, where:
“Wildlife thrives, with over 4,000 recorded species, twelve globally threatened species and abundant Amazonian fauna, including giant otters, harpy eagles, spider monkeys, and jaguars.”
It's here that drones are providing conservationists with a vital weapon in the fight against the loggers, farmers and miners who illegally lay waste to countless acres of forest each year.
The reason criminals have been able to function in the region is that, despite the natural wealth that the rich forest provides for researchers and conservationists; its thick, almost impassible landscape and remoteness mean that policing it efficiently is extremely difficult. What makes this worse is the fact that Los Amigos is almost constantly cloud covered, so satellites are unable to effectively capture images of criminals in the act. This meant that – until recently - it was almost impossible for conservationists to find them before the damage was done.
Fighting to preserve the forest is Carlos Castaneda and his team of 5 rangers. In the past the team were forced to walk the area where illegal activities were reported (by which time it was often too late to intervene), but now - with the help of Max Messinger of Wake Forest University – they have introduced a specialist fixed-wing drone to help with their investigations.
The UAV is able to fly - under cloud coverage - on missions of up to 10 miles at a time, and can be sent out to either specific GPS coordinates, or programmed to sweep large areas of the reserve. The specialist drone can even stream images in real-time to the ground, allowing Carlos and his team to pinpoint criminality (as well as damage caused by storms) in a way which was previously impossible.
The introduction of drones has made a drastic improvement on the previous conditions of Carlos Castaneda’s work, and has proven a huge step forward in protecting the magnificent Los Amigos Conservation Area.
Here’s a full report on the work of Carlos Castaneda and his team from National Public Radio:
As well as aiding conservation, drones can also help farmers identify harmful diseases that - if left untreated - would cause serious harm to their land.
One such example of this is in Florida, USA, where a disease called laurel wilt is threatening the state’s multi-million dollar avocado industry. The fungus is spread by fast-moving beetles, and is incredibly difficult to spot, meaning that it is often recognized far too late to save affected trees.
Jonathan H. Crane, a tropical fruit specialist from the university of Florida, commented on laurel wilt, describing it as:
"probably the biggest threat to the Florida avocado that's ever been seen"
However, much in the same way that they’re being used to pinpoint areas for concern in the Peruvian Amazon, small drones have once again emerged as the unlikely savior due to their exceptional surveillance capabilities.
Despite the almost invisibility of the disease in infected trees; drones can be used to gather imagery of entire groves, and then pinpoint particular areas in danger. At this point, trained dogs are taken to high-probability areas, and used to sniff out the fungus within infected trees. Once these are found, they are removed and burned, whilst surrounding trees are injected with a fungicide in the hope of saving them from the disease.
It’s not all crime fighting and disease prevention though; drones are also being widely incorporated into more routine agricultural operations in the UK and elsewhere.
Using drones allows farmers to easily spot if their land is prone to problems such as drought or pests, and they can then quickly adjust their techniques accordingly. As well as this, farmers are now able to use data collected by drones to fine-tune their chemical and fertilizer use, promising higher yields and greater efficiency.
Agricultural drones often work by taking lots of photos as they pass over farmland, which can then be edited together to give a comprehensive view of a land’s wellbeing. This level of monitoring detail has been unattainable to farmers in the past, and could usher in a new wave of productivity for the world’s agricultural workers.
International Conservation Fund of Canada
Los Amigos Conservation Concession: Lasting protection through a conservation trust fund (Updated September 2015)
Eyes In The Sky: Foam Drones Keep Watch On Rain Forest Trees (May 2015) NPR.
How drones and dogs are saving Florida's avocado trees (May 2015)
The Associated Press
Drones, dogs deployed to save avocados from deadly fungus in Florida (April 2015) NY Daily News.
Four key questions about farm drones and UAVs (January 2014) Farmers weekly.
As Rules Get Sorted Out, Drones May Transform Agriculture Industry (February 2015) NPR.
Researchers from the University of Sheffield and the University of Sussex are currently working on what's known as The Green Brain Project - a cutting edge research programme that combines technology with nature in a previously unexplored way.
The focus of the work is to better understand honeybees and their intelligent behaviours by mapping and replicating areas of their brains, before programming them onto a drone. So far, the experts have been able to program a drone to react as a bee would to visual signals, and the ambition is to map more of the brain over time.
With the data that they gather, researchers are also analysing bees' brains in the hope of gaining an insight into the reason that their numbers are in such decline around the world. As well as this, the team is using what they discover about how bees react to the physical world in order to improve the capabilities of our UAV technologies.
To understand a little more about this pioneering project, we spoke to Chelsea Sabo, the team's Robotics Postdoctoral Researcher, about how newly available drones have allowed them to map and reconstruct areas of a honeybee's brain.
"Quadcopters are wonderful. Not only do they have similar flight capabilities to bees, but they are being constantly made smaller and more advanced, and have become relatively inexpensive over time."
Whilst lauding the technical abilities which drones share with bees, such as the ability to pitch, hover and roll, Sabo is quick to point out that – contrary to what's been reported elsewhere - the project isn't intended to culminate with sending drones out into nature to replace bees. Instead, the overarching aim is to help them by understanding how their cognitive processes effect their behaviours, and how we can best utilise this knowledge.
"The best way that we can learn about anything is by trying to duplicate it, modelling is a great way to learn. We want to help bees by understanding them better, as they are absolutely vital."
As well as better understanding bees, research by the Green Brain team could change the way that drones themselves work, as Chelsea Sabo explained:
"Bees are capable of very intelligent behaviours, and at the moment, most of our drones are quite dumb. Modelling bees could allow us to create drones which are adaptive, and can have a robust reaction to the real world. If they can't integrate with humans properly, UAVs will never be successful."
To see the Green Brain Project's amazing drone in action, take a look at the project's YouTube channel, where videos are regularly uploaded of the drone's progress.
Drones can capture images and film in great detail, without the need to get particularly close to what they’re filming. This means that they offer a great potential use as an unobtrusive method of wildlife monitoring, able to attain detailed information about animals and their behaviours, without spoiling their habitat or causing them aggravation.
A company called Airware are amongst the pioneers of this novel drone use, having experimented with both fixed wing and multi-rotor drones to watch white rhinos, a species facing extinction due to years of hunting in Sub-Saharan Africa.
In the hope of both spotting and preventing poachers from killing the few white rhinoceros’ that remain, the UAS company worked alongside the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, to set up a series of test flights, using drones to send real-time video feeds of the reserve to rangers on the ground.
Whilst currently still in development, the technology being developed is intended to significantly improve the work being done by conservationists. The drones will allow cheaper and more thorough wildlife censuses to be carried out by park wardens, as well as meaning that vulnerable animals can be tracked, observed and protected more efficiently than ever before.
Take a look at the video that Airware produced about the project here:
One organisation who are already utilizing UAVs to protect wildlife are the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), who use a small, self-modified consumer grade drone to watch the nests and behaviours of rare and endangered bird species. Using everything from GoPros and camcorders, to radio trackers and thermal imaging cameras, researchers have been able to track birds and their nests from above, without causing any unnecessary intrusion.
Previous monitoring techniques came with a number of significant drawbacks, which this innovative technique has all but eradicated. Furthermore, the drones have yielded some valuable research information for the RSPB, and could become a permanent tool for conservationists.
To find out more about this ground-breaking project, we got in touch with the Technical Development Officer of the RSPB’s Centre for Conservation Science, Nigel Butcher.
Photo/ Nigel Butcher
Described by the Guardian as “the charity's answer to James Bond's lethal gadget inventor Q”, Butcher is responsible for developing technology that assists research, and was more than willing to answer a few questions and share his enthusiasm. We asked:
Why did you first start to use drones to watch birds?
I’d been keeping an eye on the domestic market, and after speaking to an ex-colleague who works at British Antarctic Survey, we decided that it would be a good idea to get a little basic frame which we could adapt.
Once we did, we started playing with it straight away; buying little bits to enhance it and finding out about the different possibilities that it had.
Getting aerial images was the obvious one, but we were thinking of other things too, like getting a thermal imager for detecting the heat signatures of things on the ground. My department have got the one frame that we’ve stuck with, but we can easily Velcro things on and off to help us with our research investigations. We need flexibility so it’s perfect for us.
Is using a drone less intrusive for the birds themselves?
It appears that a flyover causes very limited disturbance, and from what we’ve done, the reactions of birds has been minimal, most have flown around and done their usual stuff when our hexacopter has been in the vicinity.
Some traditional methods like using a boat or having people walking through areas treading down vegetation to find birds may cause some disturbance. For species in remote places and over large areas, sometimes we’ve had to use rope dragging to find things on the ground. So, UAVs can be a good solution to reducing disturbance.
Are you concerned that UAVs could stress or aggravate animals?
My team have only really focused on birds, so I can’t really comment about other animals. We always follow proper procedures to minimise disturbance to the birds and our flights here are very short, between 5 and 10 minutes long. We fly over and take photos, then we review them quickly, get our GPS coordinates and then go in and have a look at finer details. We’ve had incubating birds still on nests when we’ve been up and above them.
We’d never want a bird to desert its nest so we always err on the side of caution. We fly high to start with then bring it down carefully, or we’ll fly quickly through - at about five meters a second - so it’s not hanging around a particular location for a lengthy period.
Do you know of others who’ve had problems filming birds?
Although we haven’t had any problems we are aware that individual birds within a species may react differently, for example, raptors may be more likely to defend territory. We’ve worked with marsh harriers and haven’t had any issues.
Have you discovered anything with your drones you didn’t expect to from getting up close?
One of the first times we tried our thermal imager out we observed a corncrake moving through the undergrowth and we didn’t expect that. They’re generally very hard to spot, and we managed to get a few pixels of it moving on the ground between vegetation with the drone.
We’ve also been able to look at the temperature of eggs with species that nest on the ground like a stone-curlew. We did a thermal flight in the middle of the day and we didn’t think we’d pick up much, but there were some quite well formed chicks inside the eggs giving off a lot of heat. They were almost like big white beacons glowing on the ground. We thought that we might find something at the beginning of the day or in the evening, but at 1:30pm in June we certainly didn’t expect to see two big glowing white eggs on the ground. This was after the adult bird had been gone from the nest for around half an hour.
What else have you been able to use the camera for?
When we were looking for eggs on a marsh area of RSPB’s reserve, we helped a licenced ringer who was doing a wing tagging project looking for marsh harriers. In previous years, he hasn’t located that many birds but he's improved his numbers this year, because we can use the drone images to tell him what state of development the nest is at, rather than him having to do cold searches. The images indicate the size of birds and then he gets a better idea of when he has to go out and tag them.
We also found a lot of nests with the GoPro flying at the right height. If you’ve got a good enough area of targets to actually look for, then you can get very good images. We’re just starting to look at various software – some of it quite expensive – to stitch our pictures together and map a whole reserve.
What equipment do you use, and have you encountered any flyways; lost control of it in the air or anything like that?
We use a DJI Flamewheel F550. It can get a little bit difficult to control with camcorders, antennas and radio tracking equipment on board, especially in windy conditions, but we’ve not had any serious problems.
Most of what we do is under manual control, which we’ve had no real problems with. We’ve started to experiment with auto-flying, and we’ve had odd times when we’ve had to bring it back down quickly, but nothing worse than that really, we’ve only got the one frame and we’ve had it for nearly 3 years now.
What precautions do you take before flying?
We wouldn’t go anywhere near civilians or urbanisation, and we’re often very much at remote places on nature reserves. We’re also really careful not to go anywhere near the 400ft legal flying limit, and ensure that the UAV is always completely under control. We also got permission with a local RAF airbase nearby before flying, as well as taking other precautions when it could pose a danger to people. We take the legislation very seriously and would encourage others to follow it correctly too.
Can you see drones being used in other areas of wildlife monitoring?
I think so. There’s been talk of all sorts of monitoring with it in bird terms. People do talk about monitoring urban gulls as they been a hot topic recently, but that involves going over towns and cities, so I think that idea would need to be carefully developed. One area where they could be used is in seabird monitoring, at the moment you have to go out on boats with binoculars, and is also weather dependent. It would be easier and more efficient to fly a UAV from a cliff, which could go quite far off the land and take decent pictures. With these, you could probably pick out quite easily how many nesting pairs you’ve got.
As well as being used to watch rhinoceros’ in Kenya, and birds in the UK, a huge number of experiments have been carried out in drone wildlife monitoring, some of which have now been incorporated into routine operations. In 2013, a journal in the Public Library of Science, reported that drones were well suited to monitoring marine animals in a safe and effective manner, and researchers in Queensand, Australia have also started to use drones fitted with infrared cameras to monitor koala populations and their wellbeing, in the hope that they’ll ultimately discover why their numbers are dropping in the area.
We’re only now beginning to see the wide range of possible uses for drones in wildlife conservation, but what has emerged is incredibly encouraging, and proves another vital tool in protecting animals from a range of diverse threats.
RSPB uses drone to keep watch on Britain's vulnerable birds (May 2014) Guardian
Amanda Hodgson, Natalie Kelly and David Peel
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for Surveying Marine Fauna: A Dugong Case Study (2013) PLOS.
Jessica van Vonderen
Drones with heat-tracking cameras used to monitor koala population (2015) ABC.
Technical Development officer.
There's no doubt that drones have a huge potential to revolutionize the way people work, play and live around the world. However, as with any new and significant technological development, they are open to misuse by those who actively wish to cause others harm.
Concerns to this effect are coming from a variety of sources, with a number of recent close calls shedding light on just how ineffective current regulations are at dealing with drone attacks. Professor David Dunn of the University of Birmingham warned in December of last year that terrorists could feasibly fly UAVs towards an aircraft in the UK, with very little chance of being stopped.
Following his comments after a near miss at Heathrow, and his published policy report on drones, we spoke to Professor Dunn regarding his concerns around the risks which drones pose to national security.
How prepared do you think that we are in the UK to deal with an attempted drone terrorist attack?
Not prepared at all, I don't think, partly because our government doesn't have any clear thinking about how to respond to these threats.
During the 2014 Olympic Games, we deployed missile systems, had helicopters flying from HMS Ocean on the Thames, and had marine sharpshooters ready to shoot these things out of the skies; that was a considered response to the threat. But afterwards, these defences were dismantled, and as a consequence, we now have no effective response to small drone attacks, other than what's in place already, such as police with small arms able to engage these systems.
Since you warned that drones could be used as flying bombs, have you seen any notable response from our government?
The government has been very slow to respond to this, it's not clear that they have any real strategy. What they do is say that they view this in the context of other threats. If they do have a clear strategy they've not made it very clear.
Generally, the UK would prefer to focus on individuals and what you call intelligence lead anti-terrorism policy, rather than on the technology. What I'm pointing out is that a terrorist could use this technology without being visible to UK authorities through other means, and therefore could have a novel form of attack that could be potentially catastrophic.
As well as being used to attack planes, Dunn explained that there are many ways which drones could feasibly be used to spread terror;
Drones have already been fitted with weaponry, and they could potentially be armed with explosives or radioactive materials and used to attack a crowd. Even just setting fire to a drone that has been sprayed with propane could have a devastating effect. These applications which drones make possible are currently not facilitated by other technologies
How do you feel the industry should be regulated?
What I would like to see is the development of technologies for dealing with drones, able to either block them or take them out of the air. Drone manufacturers should see it as their responsibility to offer ways in which their technologies could be countered if they are used in malign ways, and it would be useful to have people licensed and registered as drone operators.
In The Future of Violence, security expert Benjamin Wittes and human rights law Professor Gabriella Blum also discuss the risks that drone use could present to societies around the world. The book argues that although most people would use new technology with good intentions, the possibility exists that some would use it in order to carry out atrocities.
We spoke to Gabriella Blum, co-author of The Future of Violence, about the risks that drones present to national security around the world.We started by asking when she first realized that drones could present a threat.
“People were talking about certain risks that they pose, but no one was focusing on the real issue, that they're the exact opposite of a nuclear weapon”
Blum explained that, whilst nuclear weapons are dangerous, they are sophisticated, limited to powerful states, and maintained behind safeguards. Conversely, drones are available to - and usable by - almost everyone. This means that the threats they pose could originate from anywhere, or anyone.
Despite being an expert the potentially harmful uses of drones, Gabriella Blum is quick to point out that drones have a great number of positive uses.
“You should think of drones as like a knife rather than like a gun… they're a tool, most people won't use them for menacing purposes”
By banning them, she says, you'd be restricting a lot of their good uses. In addition, for most people, making them illegal would be completely unnecessary.
“The question really is who has them or how they use them, rather than what they are capable of, that's how to determine if they're good or bad”
The Tel Aviv educated defence expert says that drones absolutely need effective regulation, but is in no doubt how challenging this would be to undertake. Regulating drones based on perceived risks could meet stern opposition, and it may be too late before we appropriately regulate this emerging industry.
“In reality, it might take a catastrophic event to get people to accept regulation”
Blum explains that the wide availability of DIY drones is a threat, as it opens up the possibility of malicious modification. Another of the most concerning implications of drones' emergence is how easy they could make killing:
“It might take a completely different type of person to program a machine than to fire a gun … to some people, drones might make killing or harming people a more interesting or attractive proposition”
Whilst people may not see themselves as capable of committing murder, under some circumstances they may be willing to set a drone to doing it for them. To this end, a UAV could function as a long distance, automatic, killing machine, as well as diminishing the risk of getting caught.
Considering all of the potentially positive uses that drones could facilitate, countered by the huge risks they could embody, we ask Gabriella Blum whether she sees drones as having an overall positive or negative impact on the world.
“It's a really tough question, and one which I think about a lot… some people are better off today than they ever have been, but I do worry about weaker states, which may not be able to protect their citizens from a new nature of threats”
We ended by asking the crucial question of how probable it is that a drone terrorist attack will happen in the coming few years. She answers quickly, with a tone of real conviction:
University of Birmingham
Professor David Dunn: Professor in international politics. Head of the Department of Political Science and International Studies.
Drones 'could be used as flying bombs for terror attack on passenger jet'. The Telegraph (December 2014) The Telegraph.
Benjamin Wittes and Gabriella Blum
The Future of Violence: Robots and Germs, Hackers and Drones—Confronting A New Age of Threat (March 2015) Amazon.
Drones have been developing at an almost unprecedented rate in recent years; continuously proving to be capable of carrying out new, inventive and useful roles that stand to revolutionise many aspects of our lives. However, there is currently a significant fault with these machines that could put the entire industry - as well as anything on the ground - at significant risk.
They're known as 'flyaways' and refer to incidents where drones completely - and often inexplicably - malfunction in mid-air. These concerning occurrences can lead to drones spinning completely out of control, and often send them tumbling to the ground at high speeds.
Flyaways often occur completely unexpectedly, and for a number of different reasons. Whether due to GPS error, loss of signal, adverse weather or software glitches, the result is the same; a large, heavy piece of machinery falling from a height to the ground. Combine this risk with that of genuine human error, and a sky full of drones starts looking like a genuine safety concern.
The Internet is littered with videos of flyaways, including this dramatic film from Everyday Reviews, where a brand new DJ1 Inspire 1 drone crashes following one. Watch out for it falling at high speed to the ground at around 6:55:
Flyaways are worryingly common, with the Wall Street Journal citing a forum where nearly a third of drone users had experienced one, with over 15 per cent of users having lost a drone for good. Whilst these malfunctions have thankfully not yet lead to any deaths, with more and more novices taking to the skies, there's a high chance that far more serious incidents could follow in the near future.
Drones often weigh a lot, feature rapidly rotating blades, and are capable of reaching hundreds of feet in altitude. This combination means that the risks of them causing injury are obvious. Incidents involving model aeroplanes have killed a number of people over the years, and the risks that drones, too, could cause deaths is plain to see. There have already been a number of highly publicized injuries and near-misses.
Enrique Igleseas had his hand sliced open by a drone in Mexico early in 2015, and a mistletoe-carrying drone cut a woman's nose at a TGIs restaurant in New York in late 2014. In addition, a woman was knocked out by a drone in June 2015 at a gay rights parade in Seattle when its owner lost control. Considering the range of injuries that drones have the potential to cause, their tendency to malfunction in mid-air is certainly a serious cause for concern.
The video below of a flyaway narrowly avoiding a busy road, a power line and a house, demonstrates the risk which flyaways pose. The reality of drones being a likely cause of vehicle collisions, harm to people, or causing damage to homes and property is worryingly apparent.
It's by no means only inexperienced flyers who can be at risk from these flyaways, with neither price of drone nor experience guaranteeing the avoidance of malfunctions. Photographer Amos Chapple - an experienced flyer whose used his drone to film some of the world's most striking locations - told us how he himself has suffered flyaways when we interviewed him about drone Drone Photography and Aerial Cinematography
"I've crashed two drones, one had a propeller fly off, the other I think had a "flyaway" malfunction. I was using an unfamiliar camera on that second one and I think the wifi must have somehow been activated, causing interference with the controller."
Amos Chapple wasn't the only professional photographer to struggle with a flyaway drone. Whilst working for Animal Planet in Peru, a team of photographers from CineChopper were tasked with flying a 15 thousand dollar drone helicopter to film a treehouse hotel, but on the first flight, the pilot Aaron Sorensen saw the drone spin entirely out of his reach. As he recalls:
"I test out my heli and everything's working 100 per cent. I then take it a little bit higher above the tree canopy. All of a sudden, I lose my ability to move the helicopter forwards and backwards"
After chasing the drone by foot in an attempt to find somewhere to land, Aaron completely lost control of it. At this point, the drone dramatically swung back and forth above the tree line, before plunging into the thick Amazonian forest.
Miraculously, the drone survived and was retrieved from the canopy. The recording of which you can see below:
Further evidence of the dangers associated with flyaways comes from the UK's first ever drone conviction, which occurred after a UAV narrowly avoided a nuclear submarine facility, as well as just missing the Jubilee Bridge before plummeting into Walney Channel.
The owner of the UAV, TV repair shop owner Robert Knowles, lost radio contact with his drone prior to the offences, and claimed that he had no way to stop it from careering away from his initial flying area towards the restricted facility and bridge.
The incident was captured on film, and you can see just how close the drone was to crashing on this video he published on YouTube of the incident.
Like many victims of flyaways, Knowles was far from an inexperienced drone operator, having flown for a number of years, as well as holding personal liability and BMFA insurance. The electronics specialist said after the event that he hadn't been flying his drone in an irresponsible manner when the incident occurred, having started the flight a mile and a half from the nuclear base which he was convicted for flying over.
When we interviewed experienced drone flyer Stefan Ekstam about the chance of drones colliding with planes, he too explained that all drones could suffer flyaways, regardless of the experience or skill level of their user:
"Drones are a safety concern to people on the ground and in the air no matter who is using them. Technical problems could cause any drone to fly away and even crash."
With flyaways occurring for a number of reasons, to a variety of drones, and to experienced as well as novice flyers, the potential that they have to cause serious harm to property, wildlife and even people on the ground is a serious cause for concern to those who create, use and regulate them.
What Happens When Your Drone Escapes (December 2014) Wall Street Journal.
Agence France-Presse in Los Angeles
Drone injury grounds Enrique Iglesias for longer than expected (June 2015) The Guardian.
Man comes forward after woman knocked out by drone (July 2015) BBC News.
TGI Friday drone crashes into woman's face and cuts it open in restaurant (December 2014). The Independent.
UK's first drone conviction will bankrupt me, says Cumbrian man (April 2014). The Guardian.
Despite drones potentially playing a key role in monitoring animals and their behaviours, recent findings have suggested that they could in fact threaten certain species' wellbeing when they come in contact with the new technology. Whether it’s causing animals stress, forcing them to relocate, or putting them in danger of physical harm, these discoveries shed light on the possible negative effects to wildlife from having UAVs within their natural habitats.
Birds have emerged as especially at risk from this, as certain species can be very territorial, with some being known to attack drones when they are seen as threatening. In extreme cases, this could lead to birds becoming injured or killed by the rotating blades on UAVs.
A number of online videos of birds attacking drones have shown just how threatened they can become in their presence, and how close recreational users are willing to go within their territory. In the video below, red-tailed hawk attacks a drone in a Massachusetts park, sending it spiralling towards the ground:
In the following video, it’s a raven taking umbrage with an unwelcome drone:
It’s not just careless recreational drone users, however, who’ve experienced hostility from birds when flying UAVs, as researchers have also come in contact with agressively territorial birds. When we spoke to Nigel Butcher, a Technical Development officer in the RSPB’s Centre for Conservation Science, he told us that – whilst he’s had no problems with his monitoring – there are risks associated with flying drones around some birds:
“I did speak to a chap from the States who’d been inspecting an Osprey nest to check the state of chicks or eggs inside, and his drone was attacked. That’s completely different though, they’re an aggressive raptor. With birds like that they’re generally just defending their territory, if you get too close they’re bound to react.”
“What it often comes down to - looking at what we’ve found via nest camera, monitoring and other aspects of research - is that individuals within a species are very different. We might say that generally it’s not an issue with Marsh Harriers, but there might be an odd one amongst the species that reacts completely differently.”
With this in mind, it’s cause for concern that some amateur drone users are taking little care when filming birds recreationally, and even if research is undertaken to understand a particular species, there may still be individuals who react unfavourably to drones.
There are already some people who use drones deliberately to scare off birds, such as Steve Wambolt, the creator of the “GooseBuster”, a drone which plays the calls of predatory birds, and helps to prevent geese from littering the Ottawa River. The area is prone to high amounts of their droppings, which contain high levels of E. coli and risk infection in human populations.
See the Goosebuster in action here:
Whilst in this case seeming an effective response to a public health issue, researchers have voiced concerns that reactions to drones could expose displaced wildlife to other risks, such as running into roads or into other animals’ territory.
Drones have been been banned from Yosemite National Park due to the risks that they pose to birds and their natural environment, and as for other wildlife - there have already been some worrying signs. When researchers from the University of Minnesota tracked black bears that had come in contact with drones, they found that their heart rates increased dramatically, indicating that they were stressed. The study claims that:
“All bears, including an individual denned for hibernation, responded to UAV flights with elevated heart rates, rising as much as 123 beats per minute above the pre-flight baseline”
These bears didn’t make any behavioural changes such as increased aggression in the presence of the drones, but researchers noted that the individuals observed were – to an extent – used to human activity. Conversely, others in the wild could become far more stressed, and therefore display more physical reactions than those in the study.
Whether these bears will be able to come accustomed to the drones is yet to be determined, if they don’t, the activities of drone users could negatively effect their wellbeing in the long term. The question of whether other animals, too, suffer from drone exposure is one that is yet to be fully understood, and future research findings may have implications on where drones are permitted to be used.
Bears get 'stressed' by drones (August 2015)
Mark A. Ditmer, John B. Vincent, Leland K. Werden, Jessie C. Tanner, Timothy G. Laske, Paul A. Iaizzo, David L. Garshelis and John R. Fieberg
Bears Show a Physiological but Limited Behavioral Response to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (August 2015) Current Biology (vol. 25:17)