September 14, 2012
From the Forest: Aerial Flights Survey Orangutans – The Conservation Drone Project
by Dr. Serge Wich and Dr. Lian Pin Koh
This was our second trip to Aras Napal, Sumatra.
We were here several months earlier test-flying a prototype model of our Conservation Drones. Those initial test-flights were wildly successful in terms of obtaining video and photographic images of orangutans and elephants, as well as land use activities such as logging, fires, and oil palm expansion.
What we failed to capture were photographs of orangutan nests. This came as no surprise as orangutan nests are hard to detect in the thick closed-canopy rainforests of Sumatra, even from helicopter and small-aircraft surveys. But we were so convinced that Conservation Drones can spot these nests that we came back to the forest for another shot.
This was the third day we were out in an open field adjacent to the rainforest, but we saw no orangutan nests… yet.
We went through the usual pre-flight checks for the next mission, as our faces dripped with sweat from standing in the scorching sun. This was a 10-minute mission over a pre- programmed grid above the last large remaining lowland rainforest in the eastern part of the 2.5 million hectare Leuser Ecosystem: an amazing stretch of rainforest and one of the last strongholds of Sumatran tigers, orangutans and elephants.
The Leuser area stretches two provinces and is important for biodiversity conservation, while at the same time providing a multitude of ecosystem services for the people living around these forests and beyond.
At the flick of a switch on the radio transmitter and a gentle toss, the Conservation Drone took off into the wind.
The 10-minute wait provided a much needed respite from the sun. We sat down in the shade and discussed how the flight parameters would need to be fine-tuned if this flight did not provide us with photographs of orangutan nests.
It is always exhilarating to be waiting for the Conservation Drone to return with the next stash of high-resolution photographs or video.
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posted by: Tom