The Flying Sensor Network That Could (Finally!) Save Our Planet

Surveillance drones don’t have to be creepy. They can also help protect endangered animals and their habitats.

Sea Shepherd got its first drone in 2011 — a fixed wing aircraft donated by a recycling plant in New Jersey. They planned to use the drone to film for their show on the Animal Planet channel, but it immediately became apparent how useful a remotely operated aircraft was in waging Sea Shepherd’s particular kind of war. It was easier and safer to use than the manned helicopter on board. It could fly in foggy weather without imperiling lives. Maybe most important, it allowed Sea Shepherd to more easily gather footage — evidence of what they say is illegal activity.

Ever since they got that first drone, except for one year, the Japanese whalers have succeeded in catching less than one-third of their quota, Paul Watson, Sea Shepherd’s founder, told me.

“It’s already proven to be quite revolutionary,” Watson told me. He’s since outfitted all the organization’s ships with drones. And he’s thinking about getting rid of his helicopters. “The only way to combat is to have the best technology we can deploy,” Watson said. “So far, this is the best.”

Welcome to wildlife conservation in the 21st century. Drones have changed warfare. They’ve transformed cinematography (and peeping tommery). If Amazon gets its way, they may soon disrupt package delivery. And now, the conservation community is abuzz with the potential of drones — of unmanned aircraft to fight poachers, monitor wildlife and help with basic biology research, like counting birds.

Drones have surveyed orangutan habitats in Borneo, watched over rhinos in South Africa, and herded elephants in Kenya — to keep them away from areas where they’re likely to get shot. Elephants don’t have much to fear in the wild, except, of course, poachers. But they loathe drones, whose whirring propellers mimic the sound of bees. And elephants happen to be terrified of bees. There’s even talk of arming drones with pellets of capsaicin, the hot stuff in chili peppers, to better herd animals.

To the degree that drones really can help save wildlife, they’re arriving none too soon — especially for the endangered species that are frequent targets of poaching. Poaching of wildlife has accelerated alarmingly in the past decade. During that time, the killing of rhinos increased fifty-fold, according to the World Wildlife Fund. By one estimate from a few years ago, three elephants are killed every hour in Africa.

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