Drones for
Environmental Protection & Conservation

Safeguarding our world with accurate aerial data

Drone (or UAV/UAS) technology suits a myriad of conservation and environmental protection applications — offering quick, easy and cost-effective aerial imagery, on demand.

From glacial feature modeling and erosion monitoring to animal counting and species identification, the list of projects that drones are being used for is long and continues to grow.

There are many reasons why professionals such as environmental engineers and scientific researchers are increasingly using drones, often in place of terrestrial surveying equipment or traditional aerial imaging services. The benefits these professionals often mention include:

Flexibility

A drone can be launched on demand—weather and regulation permitting—without needing to source and book manned aircraft services (if these exist in the region) or commission and wait for satellite imagery.

Timely

A UAV produces completely up-to-date imagery. This makes drones suited to time-sensitive projects and for monitoring locations at regular intervals (i.e. using the same flight plan each time).

Efficient

Unlike traditional surveying techniques, using a drone is fast and requires minimal staff, plus using an aerial approach overcomes common site access issues such as impenetrable vegetation, boulders, crevasses etc.

Cost-effective

Used regularly, the per-project cost of a professional drone system is typically lower than third-party alternatives such as manned imaging aircraft, with a drone system often providing a complete ROI in as little as a few months or a few large projects

Discrete

Small and light electric-powered drones, especially fixed-wing aircraft, make little noise and are often bird-shaped, meaning animals on the ground are rarely disturbed by these tools, if they notice them at all.

Rotary (helicopter) drone systems are best suited to monitoring and charting smaller areas, enabling operators to capture video imagery and respond to this feedback live, while fixed-wing UAVs—such as senseFly's eBee—allow users to map larger areas in a single autonomous flight.

A camera for every project

The camera, or payload, that a drone carries directly influences the imagery it can capture and therefore its potential usage. Here's a quick guide to the most commonly-used aerial imaging sensors in this field:

RGB cameras (left image above)

Like the camera in your smartphone or SLR, RGB sensors acquire data in the visible spectrum (specifically Red, Green & Blue bands). The images they produce can be transformed into 2D orthomosaics (A.K.A. orthophotos) and 3D digital surface models. Such sensors have been used, for example to create terrain models of glacial features, monitor coastal erosion, perform volume measurements etc.

Near-infrared (NIR), red-edge (RED) & multispectral cameras (centre image above)

These cameras acquire data across bands in the visible and non-visible spectrums. This type of data enables users to compute vegetation indices in order to create reflectance maps for assessing plant health, estimating biomass and more.

Thermal cameras (right image above)

Temperature-measuring thermal cameras, such as the senseFly thermoMAP, assign a temperature value to each pixel and have already proved highly useful in the field—being used to count treetop orangutan nests and seals, assess the spread of wildfires and more.

Example drone applications include:

Animal management & conservation

  • Animal/flock counting 
  • Camera trap image retrieval 
  • Vessel monitoring (e.g. whaling ships)
  • Animal tracking (e.g. via radio tracker collars/triangulation)
  • Migration tracking
  • Perimeter assessment
  • Habitat management
  • Anti-poaching activities (identification, deterrence)
  • Nest surveys 
  • Species identification

Plant conservation

  • Plant health/stress analysis 
  • Soil property & moisture analysis
  • Biomass estimation
  • Growth/coverage monitoring
  • Plant/tree counting
  • Species identification

Forestry

  • Vegetation health analysis
  • Biomass estimation
  • Fire detection & tracking 
  • Storm damage assessment
  • Planting / re-planting campaign planning 
  • Deforestation / illegal logging / farming / incursion monitoring
  • Forest mapping

Change monitoring

  • Glacial dynamics
  • Coastal / soil erosion
  • Pre-and-post event comparison (storms, landslides etc.)
  • Forest degradation

Terrain modeling

  • Morphology 
  • Glacial features
  • River banks 
  • Cliff faces
  • Beaches
  • Volcano craters

Coastal management

  • Erosion monitoring
  • Storm damage assessment
  • Volume estimation 
  • Beach replenishment planning

River & flood assessment

  • River mapping & modeling
  • River surveys
  • Water-flow simulation 
  • Erosion monitoring 
  • Flood damage assessment
  • Flood defense planning

Earthwork & rock face management

  • Control screen inspection
  • Crack / unstable area detection 
  • Rock fall assessment
  • 3D modeling
  • Project planning

Regulation enforcement

  • Illegal activity detection & monitoring 
  • Compliance monitoring (e.g. overfishing, illegal logging/farming expansion, illegal entry into protected areas etc.)

Expedition planning

  • Basemap creation
  • Route planning
  • Terrain modeling

Case studies & reports

Meet the professionals around the world who are already using drones in their environmental work by browsing the related stories, articles and reports below.

Using a swinglet CAM to analyse glacier dynamics in the Himalayas

Learn how an international team of glacial hydrologists used senseFly drone technology to overcome the limitations of traditional data collection methods

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Using a drone to count grey seals in Canada

When Duke University researchers wanted to try counting seals with a drone, they headed to Canada with eBees and several cameras, including a thermal sensor. The project’s results confirmed how UAVs can help save time and money, and highlighted the promise of thermal imaging.

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Using drone technology to help regenerate an ancient ecosystem

Read how Drone Adventures helped Pro Natura, a Swiss conservation non-profit, with a unique biodiversity project - using drones to produce orthomosaics and terrain models of an ancient peat bog in need of regeneration.

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Mapping geomorphological features in the Subantarctics

Landscape mapping with drones doesn't get more challenging than flying over remote, windy islands without disturbing the birds, as one team of climate change researchers discovered…

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Using a drone to help shore up an English beach

When the U.K. Environment Agency needed a partner to calculate beach volumes, it turned to UAV experts ATEC-3D to carry out a volume survey with its eBee before the tide came in.

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Flying high with Phoebee the eBee

Explore the work of Phoebe, the Kew GIS team's eBee drone, as Justin Moat and co. employ this tool on plant conservation projects around the world.

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Using the eBee for a rapid forest fire damage assessment

Learn how Lithuanian GIS specialist Hnit-Baltic used an eBee drone to map fire damage on Lithuania’s protected Curonian Spit.

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Namibia’s savanna classified - from drone imagery to vegetation base maps

Timothée Produit of EPFL’s LASIG lab and colleague Matthew Parkan explain how they used Drone Adventures' multi-spectral drone imagery to create vegetation base maps.

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Uso do eBee na investigação polar

Aprenda como o programa Polar Português (PROPOLAR) - a primeira organização que adquiriu um VANT senseFly (chamado Suzanne Deveau) com levantamento de fundos por crowdsourcing - usa su eBee na áreas mais frias do mundo.

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Counting green turtles in Indonesia

Read how a cross-university team of researchers used a senseFly swinglet CAM to analyse the spatial distribution of green turtles in East Kalimantan, Indonesia, in order to better understand how these animals forage.

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Eagle-eyed highland habitat management

New senseFly drone owner Cormac Loughran, an ecological consultant in the UK, discusses how he expects his UAV to improve his work.

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Mapping the flow of lava in Hawaii

Read how the spatial analysis team at the University of Hawai‘i (UH) used a senseFly swinglet CAM to map the active flow front of Kilauea Volcano's lava flow on Hawai‘i Island.

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Identifying trees affected by 'ash dieback'

When Brockhill Country Park's team noticed the effects of 'ash dieback' on some of their trees, they contracted ATEC-3D to run an aerial eBee survey to identify all the infected specimens.

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Mapping water reserves in Chad

Read how Swiss aerial cartography company, Easy2map, drone mapped water reserves close in N'Djamana in Chad in very windy and dusty conditions.

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Evaluating the feasibility of dense forest cartography

Read how the Swiss R-Pod project evaluated the feasibility of dense forest cartography across different parkland regions of the Ivory Coast.

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Improving a UK town’s coastal defences with an up-to-date aerial survey

Read how the UK town of Sidmouth's seagulls were joined by a senseFly drone as part of East Devon District Council's coastal erosion monitoring project.

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"The eBee is a powerful tool. It is a flexible and efficient way of gathering environmentally relevant information at the landscape scale and at the desired spatio-temporal resolution. We are using ours to develop flexible and efficient monitoring programs to be used in environmental science and practice, in particular in the fields of floodplain dynamics, biodiversity and restoration"

Dr. Michael Döring, Head of Research Group for Ecohydrology, Dr. Patrick Laube, Head of Research Group for Geoinformatics, Martin Geilhausen, Pascal Ochsner and Dr. Diego Tonolla,Scientific Collaborators Geoinformatics & Ecohydrology
Zurich University of Applied Sciences, Switzerland

Dr. Michael Döring, Head of Research Group for Ecohydrology, Dr. Patrick Laube, Head of Research Group for Geoinformatics, Martin Geilhausen, Pascal Ochsner and Dr. Diego Tonolla,Scientific Collaborators Geoinformatics & Ecohydrology

"With the eBee we could easily identify and map geomorphological features in the New Zealand Subantarctics, which due to thick vegetation and a lack of satellite coverage would have been impossible otherwise. The eBee's low noise and 'natural' appearance was also crucial, since this meant it didn't disturb local bird colonies. This drone has such a wide range of potential applications that it could be a sound investment for many research departments."

Dr. Zoë Thomas, Research Associate
Climate Change Research Centre, Australia

Dr. Zoë Thomas, Research Associate

"We have begun using two eBees across different marine and conservation projects to see where we’ll best be able to employ them. For example, we already used an eBee carrying a thermoMAP payload for a very successful seal counting project in Canada. For us, a UAS is more efficient than taking shots manually from manned aircraft—in fact we realised we could buy a full drone system for what two aerial surveys would have cost us in the past! We expect the eBee to become a solid and very important component of our research program as we move forwards."

David W. Johnston, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of the Practice of Marine Conservation & Ecology
Nicholas School of the Environment, United States

David W. Johnston, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of the Practice of Marine Conservation & Ecology

"This technology has a huge amount to offer plant scientists who are working towards better understanding our planet's biodiversity. It allows scientists to reach places that were previously off limits as they were either too remote, too dangerous or too time consuming to explore. With our eBee we can now cover large areas of ground in great detail from a completely different perspective - and quickly too."

Justin Moat, Head
Kew Gardens GIS Unit, United Kingdom

Justin Moat, Head

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