Radio-Tagged Wildlife Is Hard to Track—Unless You’ve Got a Drone

The drones could be a game changer for conservation by slashing the time and money spent on fieldwork.
Aug 26, 2015·
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Wildlife researchers are already using small, remote-controlled fliers to photograph and collect breath samples from whales.

Camera-strapped drones have also become key in the effort to stop poachers before they kill endangered rhinos, elephants, and lions.

Now, a new type of drone may help researchers track and conserve tinier species of wildlife not so easy to locate by sight.

Developed by researchers at Australian National University in partnership with the Australian Centre for Field Robotics, these drones are the first to use radio-tracking equipment to track down individual tagged animals, some carrying transmitters that weigh a fraction of an ounce.

Debbie Saunders, the ANU wildlife ecologist leading the drone project, said in a video that it would typically take a team of researchers half a day of tramping over wild terrain with a receiver to locate these animals.

Two drones can do the same work in under an hour.

For Saunders, the technology was born out of a need to better track the small, evasive bird species studied by her team. The new system lets researchers follow the movements of animals to a degree not possible before, she said in the video.

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The technology could also be useful for land managers trying to locate pest species or identify animal denning sites from above, she said. “Although that is possible from on the ground, if we can do it in a more efficient way and without as much manpower required, then we can reduce the cost and increase the efficiency of those management techniques,” Saunders said.

Saunders’ team is using the drone system to track radio-tagged bettongs, rabbit-size kangaroos. Formerly wiped out of the area by habitat loss and fox predation, the species has been reintroduced in the Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary in New South Wales.

“How it works is, we don’t want to fly straight toward the animal because you will scare it, so we launch it manually and fly up to 30 to 50 meters [98 to 164 feet], above the canopy,” Saunders told Gizmag. “Then when it picks up the signal, it shows you where on Google Maps, and then we know [the animal] is right there.”

Having more and better data on the movements of individual bettongs, as well as their proximity to foxes or to land under development, could help researchers figure out the best way to reintroduce the species.

With more than 150 test flights accomplished, the drones are attracting international interest.

“Lots of people are trying to do this. It is not an easy process, but we believe we’ve come up with a solution,” said Oliver Cliff, a researcher from the Australian Centre for Field Robotics, in a statement. “We’ve had interest in our system from all around the world. We are still doing some fine-tuning, but we’ve achieved more than has ever been done before, which is exciting.”