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Crested Tern colony on a remote island in north-western Australia photographed by a UAV.

Senator Rand Paul’s recent 13-hour filibuster on the floor of the US Senate over concerns of creeping domestic drone use captured a broader anxiety about the nascent technology. In an essay published in the Stanford Law Review, Ryan Calo argues that “virtually any robot can engender a certain amount of discomfort, let alone one associated in the mind of the average American with spy operations or targeted killing.” In some unlikely circles, however, people are growing more comfortable with the idea.

The commercial use of drones was the subject of heated public debate last year when Congress passed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. Providing more access to U.S. airspace, the 2012 Act has opened up the skies to an expected 7,500 commercially operated drones and an $5 billion-plus industry by 2015. Fears of domestic surveillance have resulted in public concern over safety and privacy, and several states have moved to limit or ban drone use in their airspace.

Along with more Orwellian uses, drones (also known as unmanned aerial systems) can be used for everything from disaster relief to weather monitoring. Drones have been utilized for years to improve activities that require aerial views such as environmental monitoring, surveying forestry and crops, catching wildfires in time and measuring wildlife populations. During the infamous Fukushima nuclear disaster, an 18-pound robot called the Honeywell T-Hawk flew reconnaissance missions in areas with radiation levels too dangerous for manned flights.

A recent Mother Jones article on non-lethal drone use points out that the US Geological Survey currently maintains an entire office relying on drone surveillance. Some projects that involve aircraft include monitoring crane migration, dam removals and the spread of invasive species in Hawaii.

Other US government agencies operating drones include NASA, which operates two drones that collect scientific data from far-flung and inhospitable locations. The BBC reported last month that the next destination for these drones is into the heart of hurricanes in the Atlantic, as they take form before making landfall.

The technology is being rapidly developed around the world, with over 50 countries now maintaining some form of unmanned aerial system. With manufacturers working on different designs in America, China, Israel and other locations, a myriad of different models are set to hit the market in the years ahead. The hope is that future low-cost options will open the market to smaller buyers, but as of now prices remain high. It was this impediment that led two biologists to develop their own low-cost drone, known as the Conservation Drone project.

“We believe drones will be an indispensable tool for environmental conservation in the very near future,” says Lian Pin Koh to Corporate Knights. Koh, a conservation biologist, started the Conservation Drones project along with his parter Serge Wich, a primate biologist who has spent the past 20 years studying orangutan ecology and conservation in Indonesia. They have found that drones can help to inexpensively collect timely data that scientists and conservationists need to expand their research. The duo has used their drones to monitor orangutans, animal poaching in African nations and deforestation in Indonesia. The following is an excerpt of a recent conversation with Koh:

CK: How did you and your partner come up with Conservation Drones?

KOH: Serge and I have been conducting ecology research in Southeast Asia over the past 10 years. We have always wanted a tool that could acquire aerial images of the tropical rainforests and the wildlife in those forests. We quickly discovered that the commercially available unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) systems are too expensive for us, and for most of our colleagues, in the conservation field. They cost more than $10,000 US, and some even more than $100,000 US. That was when Serge and I started developing a low-cost unmanned aerial vehicle system in 2011. We began experimenting with off-the-shelf hobby planes and open-source autopilot hardware and software systems. Within half a year, we successfully test flew our first prototype in Indonesia and posted it on the Internet. The video quickly spread to our colleagues, who started approaching us for information on how to build one for their own uses. That was when we created the ConservationDrones.org website to share everything we have learned about building these low-cost drones.

CK: What projects are currently in the works?

KOH: We are expanding our project in several different ways now. The biggest challenge right now is to scale up our initiative. We are trying to do so by working with a Swiss start-up that is taking care of drone assembly, delivery and the training of the drone users. So far we have assembled and trained drone operators for the World Wildlife Fund, the Wildlife Conservation Society, Greenpeace and others. We’re constantly improving our drone systems according to feedback from our users. For example, we are trying to improve the robustness of these drones, so they can operate under the stressful physical conditions of the tropics where most of them are deployed. We are even trying to develop an aquatic drone that can take off and land on water, which would be useful for researchers working in the riverine and coastal environments. We are also experimenting with new sensor systems, including a thermal imaging camera. This would allow the drone to acquire videos and photographs of heat-emitting objects on the ground, which might be useful for detecting forest fires or wildlife poachers.

CK: Do you think that your project can change public perceptions about drone use?

KOH: I believe new technologies always present a dilemma for society, given their potential for doing both harm and good. I think it will take some time for lawmakers to catch up with the technology and develop appropriate guidelines to their usage, especially in populated areas such as cities. Once that is achieved, society will likely be more accepting of this new technology. We feel that the demonstration of beneficial and non-military uses of drones could also help them gain public acceptance. We like to think that Conservation Drones is helping in that cause.

CK: Why are drones efficient when it comes to environmental conservation?

KOH: The ability to have an eye in the sky presents new opportunities for measuring changes in forest cover, monitoring wildlife populations, and combating illegal activities such as poaching and fires.

CK: Do you see a big future for drones in this field?

KOH: Currently, we are one of the few groups that can produce these drones at a low cost for the environmental community. But I hope that in the near future commercial drones will become more affordable, so that users will be able to buy them off the shelf the way we now can for basic tools such as binoculars.

CK: How have drones really helped ecologists and environmental conservation?

KOH: The use of drones by ecologists is still very much in its infancy. We are probably the first group to help transfer this technology to our conservation colleagues. Even so, there have already been some exciting demonstrations of drone-acquired images for mapping a landscape that could have only been achieved in the past using satellite-borne remote sensors or manned aircrafts (both of which are often prohibitively expensive for researchers in developing countries.) There has also been some success in using drones for detecting and counting wildlife, including orangutan nests in Indonesia and whales in Australia, but I think that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

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