Kinder, gentler drones

by Patrick Lejtenyi, BA’97

Illustration: Bernie Mireault

The first thing that pops into most people’s minds when the word ‘drones’ is mentioned are bombs dropping out of the clear blue sky. “The public and the media have acquired negative feelings about the word,” acknowledges David Bird, a professor of wildlife biology at Macdonald Campus. While Bird isn’t exactly out to rehabilitate drones, he is proving that they can be used for far more peaceful purposes.

The founder of the new Journal of Unmanned Vehicle Systems (the first issue is being readied for the fall), Bird is a proponent of their use for observing wildlife on land, sea and air. He sees enormous potential in developing their applications for scientific research. It’s just that one little word that’s difficult. “It’s our job to turn the tables and get the public to associate it with good things.”

The preferred term is actually unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and scientists have been using UAV technology to monitor wildlife for years. To date, it’s been used to observe geese, ospreys, hawks, terns, herons, buffalo and caribou, among others. He is hoping governments in Botswana, South Africa and perhaps Kenya will follow through on discussions to use the technology to catch poachers.

A couple of tricky problems have presented themselves, however. The first was the realization that Transport Canada doesn’t really go for civilians flying small things around the skies without a permit. The second is securing costs: Bird says drones can be hugely expensive, up to $65,000 each. Another is learning how to fly and, perhaps more importantly, land them. But better to crash a UAV than anything else.

“The highest source of mortality for wildlife biologists is plane crashes,” says Bird. “With UAVs, we can replace planes. The machine becomes a tool that’s used to perform the dull, dirty and dangerous missions.”