Tracking Desert Tortoises “Drone Style”

I recently returned home from a trip to Las Vegas, Nevada, in a car with three young engineers and one iguana biologist. And I promise, I was not hung over!

Sometimes, studying animals in the field requires that you reach outside your box and connect with researchers from other disciplines as well as with bright young students to advance your studies. This is what is so special about working for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. The halls of the building are filled with researchers studying wildlife, from tiny pocket mice to large elephants, and it is truly a joy to get creative with collaborative science in this atmosphere.

One of the best new technologies to emerge as a tool for wildlife studies is the unmanned aerial vehicle, commonly known as a drone. Without the need for a pilot on board, drones can fly into hard-to-reach areas and potentially monitor the presence of individual animals involved in a study around the clock. Several groups looking into the use of drones for conservation have already reported early successes.

For the most part, this has involved drones carrying cameras to take truly stunning photos of wildlife, vegetation, or even archeological ruins. But the one challenge many groups are now working on to solve is the innovation of drones to radio-track wildlife.

Researchers at the Institute for Conservation Research are currently working on multiple projects with a team of engineering students known as UCSD Engineers for Exploration. This is where the iguana biologist, engineers, and desert tortoise biologist cross paths.

How many engineers does it take to set up a drone conservation project? Three! Plus an iguana biologist and the author.

How many engineers does it take to set up a drone conservation project? Three! Plus an iguana biologist and the author.

Dr. Stesha Pasachnik has a problem she would like to solve. How to track iguanas in habitat where thick spiny vegetation is making it almost impossible for her to follow the iguanas she is studying in the Dominican Republic. For Stesha, a drone to fly above the vegetation and locate individuals would be a dream come true. In the Mojave Desert, our research team, headed by Dr. Melia Nafus and Jeanette Perry, is tracking animals daily in the hot desert. Tortoises can sometimes move quickly (yes!), and looking for a lost tortoise is exhausting work. Drones able to fly long distances and locate individuals would be a dream come true.

Drone flight data: is it more accurate than boots-on-the-ground data?

Drone flight data: is it more accurate than boots-on-the-ground data?

Although these problems require different solutions, we recently headed into the field together to measure the effectiveness of a drone developed by the UCSD engineers to locate desert tortoises. We aimed to verify its accuracy by comparing the data the drone collected with the data collected by our team on foot using traditional technology. The team drove out to the Mojave Desert and spent a day flying, adjusting, flying, adjusting, and flying the drone again to collect data. What did we learn?

The verdict is still out, as the data need analyzing, and the problem possibly requires a more complex solution than first proposed. Science often requires adjustments, and our team will try and try again, following our mission to be the science of saving species!

Allyson Walsh is the associate director of applied animal ecology, San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

Still quiet here.sas

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