How Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS, aka “drones”) are being applied in conservation research

By Leila Lemos, Ph.D. Student, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, OSU


Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), also known as “drones”, have been increasingly used in many diverse areas. Concerning field research, the use of drones has brought about reduced errors, increased safety and survey efforts, among other benefits, as described in a previous blog post of mine.

Several study groups around the world have been applying this new technology to a great variety of research applications, aiding in the conservation of certain areas and their respective fauna and flora. Examples of these studies include forest monitoring and tree cover analyses, .

Using drones for forest monitoring and tree cover analyses allows for many applications, such as biodiversity and tree height monitoring, forest classification and inventory, and plant disease and detection. The Ugalla Primate Project, for example, performed an interesting study on tree coverage mapping in western Tanzania (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Tree coverage analyses in Tanzania.
Source: Conservation Drones, 2016.


The access to this data (not possible before from the ground) and the acquired knowledge on tree density and structure were important to better understand how wild primates exploit a mosaic landscape. Here is a video about this project:


Forest restoration activities can also be monitored by drones. Rainforests around the world have been depleted through deforestation, partly to open up space for agriculture. To meet conservation goals, large areas are being restored to rainforests today (Elsevier 2015). It is important to monitor the success of the forest regeneration and to ensure that the inspected area is being replenished with the right vegetation. Since inspection events can be costly, labor intensive and time consuming, drones can facilitate these procedures, making the monitoring process more feasible.

Zahawi et al. (2015) conducted an interesting study in Costa Rica, being able to keep up with the success of the forest regeneration. They were also able to spot many fruit-eating birds important for forest regeneration (eg. mountain thrush, black guan and sooty-capped bush tanager). Researchers concluded that the automation of the process lead to equally accurate results.

Drones can also be used to inspect areas for illegal logging and habitat destruction. Conservationists have struggled to identify illegal activities, and the use of drones can accelerate the identification process of these activities and help to monitor their spread and ensure that they do not intersect with protected areas.

The Amazon Basin Conservation Association Los Amigos conservancy concession (LACC) has been monitoring 145,000 hectars of the local conservation area. Illegal gold mining and logging activities were identified (Figure 2) and drones have aided in tracking the spread of these activities and the progress of reforestation efforts.

Figure 2: Identification of illegal activities in the Amazon Basin.
Source: NPR, 2015.


Another remarkable project was held in Mexico, in one of the most important sites for monarch butterflies in the country: the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. Around 10 hectars of vital trees were cut down in the reserve during 2013-2015, and a great decrease of the monarch population was perceived. The reserve did not allow researchers to enter in the area for inspection due to safety concerns. Therefore, drones were used and were able to reveal the illegal logging activity (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Identification of illegal logging at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, Mexico.
Source: Take Part, 2016.


Regarding the use of drones for mapping vulnerable areas, this new technology can be used to map potential exposed areas to avoid catastrophes. Concerning responses to fires or other natural disasters, drones can fly immediately, while planes and helicopters require a certain time. The drone material also allows for operating successfully under challenging conditions such as rain, snow and high temperatures, as in the case of fires. Data can be assessed in real time, with no need to have firefighters or other personnel at a dangerous location anymore. Drones can now fulfill this role. Examples of drone applications in this regard are the detection, monitoring and support for catastrophes such as landslides, tsunamis, ship collisions, volcanic eruptions, nuclear accidents, fire scenes, flooding, storms and hurricanes, and rescue of people and wildlife at risk. In addition, the use of a thermal image camera can better assist in rescue operations.

Researchers from the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM) are developing a system to detect forest fires by using a color index (Cruz et al. 2016). This index is based on vegetation classification techniques that have been adapted to detect different tonalities for flames and smoke (Figure 4). This new technique would result in more cost-effective outcomes than conventional systems (eg. helicopters, satellites) and in reaching inaccessible locations.

Figure 4: Fire detection with Forest Fire Detection Index (FFDI) in different scenes.
Source: UPM, 2016.


Marine debris detection by drones is another great functionality. The right localization and the extent of the problem can be detected through drone footage, and action plans for clean-ups can be developed.

A research conducted by the Duke University Marine Lab has been detecting marine debris on beaches around the world. They indicate that marine debris impacts water quality, and harms wildlife (eg. whales, sea birds, seals and sea turtles) that might confuse floating plastic with food. You can read a bit more about their research and its importance for conservation ends here.

Drones are also being extensively used for wildlife monitoring. Through drone footage, researchers around the world have been able to detect and map wildlife and habitat use, estimate densities and evaluate population status, detect rare behaviors, combat poaching, among others. One of the main benefits of using a drone instead of using helicopters or airplanes, or having researchers in the area, is the lower disturbance it may cause on wildlife.

A research team from Monash University is using drones for seabird monitoring in remote islands in northwestern Australia (Figure 5). After some tests, researchers were able to detect which altitude (~75 meters) the drone would not cause any disturbances to the birds. Results achieved by projects like this should be used in the future for approaching the species safely.

Figure 5: Photograph taken by a drone of a crested tern colony on a remote island in Australia.
Source: Conservation Drones, 2014.


Drones are also being used to combat elephant and rhino poaching in Africa. They are being implemented to predict, trace, track and catch suspects of poaching. The aim is to reduce the number of animals being killed for the detusking and dehorning practices and the illegal trade. You can read more about this theme here. The drone application on combating one of these illegal practices is also shown here in this video.

As if the innovation of this device alone was not enough, drones are also being used to load other tools. A good example is the collection of whale breath samples by attaching Petri dishes or sterile sponges in the basal part of the drones.

The collection of lung samples allows many health-monitoring applications, such as the analysis of virus and bacteria loads, DNA, hormones, and the detection of environmental toxins in their organisms. This non-invasive physiological tool, known as “Snotbot”, allows sampling collection without approaching closely the individuals and with minimal or no disturbance of the animals. The following video better describes about this amazing project:

It is inspiring to look at all of these wonderful applications of drones in conservation research. Our GEMM Lab team is already applying this great tool in the field and is hoping to support the conservation of wildlife.




Conservation Drones. 2014. Conservation Drones for Seabird Monitoring. Available at:

Conservation Drones. 2016. Tree cover analyses in Tanzania in collaboration with Envirodrone. Available at:

Cruz H, Eckert M, Meneses J and Martínez JF. 2016. Efficient Forest Fire Detection Index for Application in Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs). Sensors 16(893):1-16.

Elsevier. 2015. Drones Could Make Forest Conservation Monitoring Significantly Cheaper: new study published in the Biological Conservation wins Elsevier’s Atlas award for September 2015. Available at: significantly-cheaper

NPR. 2015. Eyes In The Sky: Foam Drones Keep Watch On Rain Forest Trees. Available at:

Take Part. 2016. Drones Uncover Illegal Logging in Critical Monarch Butterfly Reserve. Available at:

UPM. 2016. New automatic forest fire detection system by using surveillance drones. Available at:

Zahawi RA, Dandois JP, Holl KD, Nadwodny D, Reid JL and Ellis EC. 2015. Using lightweight unmanned aerial vehicles to monitor tropical forest recovery. Biological Conservation 186:287–295.