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Exploring Peru’s Wilderness From the Air

  • Center for Conservation and Sustainability team with a drone in Peru

What’s that in Peru’s sky?

It’s a conservation drone!

The new super hero of Peru has just arrived, and it is here to fight deforestation, safeguard ecosystem restoration and protect nature along with its Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) scientist sidekicks.

For more than 15 years, SCBI’s Center for Conservation and Sustainability has been doing research in Peru. Our focus is to better understand the dimensions of biodiversity and measure the impact of human industry and infrastructure on ecosystems. This research takes place in some of the most diverse places on earth: the Amazon, the Andes and the Humboldt Current Marine Ecosystem.

The diversity of life on earth is threatened by human development in multiple ways. Plants and animals are disappearing as a result of the degradation and destruction of natural habitats, climate change, the invasion of exotic species that replace native ones, and the overexploitation of some species for hunting, logging or fishing.

The resulting erosion of biodiversity and loss of natural habitats has, in turn, negative consequences on human societies. We depend on the numerous services provided by nature — things like clean air and water, pollination, natural medicines, climate regulation, or simply the inspirational sense of wonder we experience when walking in nature.

The application of cutting-edge technology has allowed scientists to address and answer questions that seemed intractable in the past. The latest addition to our suite of tools is a fixed-wing drone that is part of the Smithsonian’s Ecological Drone Program. We are excited for the new opportunities this super-powered flying hero brings to help us tackle conservation in Peru—from the sky!
Drones scan vast expanses of lands and collect data from the ground through different sensors. They can even detect animals and people with thermal cameras. This is very useful to conservation biologists studying and protecting biodiversity.

Drones scan vast expanses of lands and collect data from the ground through different sensors. They can even detect animals and people with thermal cameras. This is very useful to conservation biologists studying and protecting biodiversity.

How is drone technology used for biodiversity conservation?

Drones have opened new ways to study and protect nature that could help reverse the adverse consequences of the frenzied development of human societies. With this technology, researchers can survey vast tracks of land, even in very remote places, without the need for costly, dangerous and often less-effective expeditions.

For example, drones have been used to count orangutan nests in Borneo. Because these critically endangered great apes build their nests in treetops, they are much easier to count from above than from the ground below. Counting these nests can be a great indicator of the number of individuals remaining in the population.

Drones also have the capability to map forests in 3-D, which provides invaluable information to researchers about tree composition and biomass. This data shows how healthy the forest is and its capacity to store carbon dioxide — an essential ecosystem service that slows down global warming.

At the same time, drones can provide critical information on the progress of habitat destruction. Conservationists can map human-induced land use changes, such as the conversion of forests to palm oil plantations, illegal logging and wildfires.

You may be surprised to know that drones have proved effective to detect illegal activities, such as poaching, in protected areas. The early detection of illegal hunters makes it possible to mobilize park guards faster, and increases the chance of intercepting poachers and holding them accountable for their actions.

Drone technology has only recently been applied to biodiversity conservation, yet it has already started to revolutionize the field. By embracing this technology, the Center for Conservation and Sustainability will also contribute to find smarter ways to study and preserve nature.

Humboldt penguins in Peru

When it comes to choosing a location for a natural gas marine terminal, PERU LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) discovered that the options are not always black and white. When their construction site became the home of choice for Humboldt penguins, PERU LNG called upon SCBI’s Biodiversity Monitoring and Assessment Program to study the terminal's impact on wildlife.

How can drones help scientists study Peru’s coast?

Oceans are complex to study, yet they are full of amazing creatures. Along the coast of Peru, the most ubiquitous residents are seabirds. The cold currents flowing from the southern tip of South America bring waters rich with life. With the upwelling phenomenon comes an enormous abundance of food for many species, including seabirds. As a consequence, the Peruvian coast hosts millions of migratory seabirds.

Can you imagine trying to assess the size of these populations? Well, drones and high-resolution cameras are doing it! In the central coast of Peru, we will use the drone to cover long stretches of beach and rocky islands to estimate the number of individual seabirds and species native to Peru.

We have used drones in the past for this, but the equipment had limited flight time and could not cover as great a distance as the new technology does. Thermal sensors on the new drone will enable us to detect heat signatures of seabirds swimming underwater.

The terrain of the central coast of Peru is highly dynamic, shaped by rip currents that can extend 200 meters offshore. Every year, during the austral winter, strong South Pacific swells transport tons of sediment, changing the morphology of the central coast.

With our new equipment, we can monitor these changes with higher frequency and geographical coverage. This information will allow us to understand the influence of large infrastructure on sediment transport and associated consequences on marine communities. The data we gather will be used to improve engineering designs.

Two contrasting habitats, Andean wetlands (left) and desert (right) monitored by the Center for Conservation and Sustainability in the Andes and central coast of Peru.

Two contrasting habitats, Andean wetlands (left) and desert (right) monitored by the Center for Conservation and Sustainability in the Andes and central coast of Peru.

Why use drones to study the Andes?

Reaching peaks of more than 22,000 feet, the Andes are a geographical force shaping the east and west of Peru, influencing the distribution of animals and plants, providing a vital source of water and hosting a repository of cultural richness for Peru.

Since 2011, the Center for Conservation and Sustainability has been monitoring the restoration of 14 Ecological Landscape Units (ELUs) along a 408 kilometer (254 miles) trans-Andean gas pipeline built by PERU LNG. The pipeline traverses ELU habitats, including high-altitude Andean wetlands, dry forest and the coastal desert.

Each ELU presents unique restoration challenges that depend on human efforts and geographical and environmental conditions. Climate change also threatens the restoration capacity of ELUs that depend primarily on water influx from Andean glaciers.

Monitoring and assessing restoration along the pipeline is a big logistic challenge in terms of accessibility and climate. While long-term experimental sites established along the pipeline provide valuable information, they still represent only a small fraction of the whole landscape.

The drone makes it possible to monitor vegetation recovery along the entire length of the pipeline. We can now survey long stretches of the infrastructure several times a year, even at places where the high altitude (more than 12,000 feet) usually slows down traditional on-foot survey efforts. We will collect aerial imagery with different sensors to assess vegetation health and recovery along the pipeline.

Water availability is of critical importance in high-altitude wetlands. The use of hyperspectral sensors in these environments will allow us to estimate and map soil moisture across seasons to complement our on-site surveys.

Paddling along the Amazon River Basin.

The Center for Conservation and Sustainability (CCS) developed the Biodiversity Monitoring and Assessment Program (BMAP) in the 1990s in the Peruvian Amazon. 

How will you use drones in the Amazon?

The Peruvian Amazon is one of the most biodiverse areas of the world, and it has been much less impacted by human development than other parts of the Amazonian forest. This makes the region a global priority for conservation but also a challenge for the Peruvian authorities, as people living there are in need of economic development.

For more than 15 years, the Center for Conservation and Sustainability has been working in the Peruvian Amazon. Our goals in the region are threefold. First, we contribute to the understanding of these ecosystems of global conservation significance through our research. Next, we work closely with local stakeholders to propose new ways to build and operate large infrastructure in sensitive habitats. Last, but not least, we invent tools to better balance economic development, human wellbeing and environmental conservation to reach a true sustainable development. (You can learn more about how we do this in a Q&A with Francisco Dallmeier, head of the Center for Conservation and Sustainability.)

Our drone will map these study sites in high resolution, allowing us to see the progression and results of our projects at the landscape level. The drone will also allow us to quantitatively track forest degradation and deforestation in much higher temporal and geographical resolution. This will help us understand the best conditions and practices for minimizing adverse impact and accelerating natural regeneration of the ecosystems.

We will also develop technologies that will allow us to track warm-blooded animals through the trees with thermal imagery. Until now, the application of this technology to monkey population estimates has been disappointing compared to on-the-ground counts, but we believe further attempts could improve the reliability of this method.

Finally, we will use the drone to acquire better communication material that can help raise public awareness about the incredible forest, animals and cultures of the Peruvian Amazon, as well as the threats they face.

What are the next steps for the drone program?

Now that our staff are trained and ready to fly, we are establishing a list of research priorities at each site. We only have one drone for the many ideas we have been developing and discussing!

First and foremost, we are working towards developing a data management pipeline. Going into the field and collecting images is exciting, but very soon terabytes of data will pile up, and we will need to analyze it.

We recognized early on the limitation of our resources and possibilities to improve sensors and data collection. For that, we are establishing partnerships with Peruvian engineers. This will help us expand our suite of sensors and add new superpowers for our drone.

With this type of tool at hand in Peru, we are developing collaborative studies to explore new sites and habitats and tackle new conservation questions. Our hero will be very busy!

A dark brown tamarin perched on a tree with green leaves in the Peruvian Amazon

Tamarins travel the forest through the dense understory or the high canopy. Natural canopy bridges formed by two trees that connect across a road or pipeline, allow tamarins to access the entire forest without risking their lives by running across the ground. Smithsonian researchers help companies in the Peruvian Amazon identify and protect natural canopy bridges during construction to reduce the negative impacts of forest fragmentation. The drone will be of great help to identify and map these bridges.

What challenges do you face using drones for biodiversity conservation and monitoring?

We are very excited to be part of the technological revolution that drones are bringing to our scientific field and conservation mission. Current drone technology has three main limitations that engineers are working to improve: flight time, payload adapted to the sensors needed, and takeoff and landing options.

Flight time of most drones is currently between 20 minutes and one hour, which limits the area that can be effectively surveyed and the amount of data that can be collected. With longer flight times, conservation drones could reach remote areas from the commodity of a field camp, without the need to launch an expedition to the study site. This would also allow for the monitoring of larger surfaces of natural habitats in a single mission.

The payload for most drones can only carry very small sensors, limiting the options to a handful of already miniaturized technologies. If drones could carry more weight, or if sensors could be miniaturized, it would be possible to collect more data in a single flight. This would also enable us to combine several high-resolution sensors, such as hyperspectral and thermal cameras coupled with a light detection and ranging (LiDAR) sensor.

Each type of drone has different takeoff and landing capacity, as well as the ability to do stationary flights (or not). The most versatile drones are multi-rotors copters, but they have the shortest flight time. Conservationists often launch and retrieve their drones from boats, or in the heart of thick forests. We need drones that can land in tight spots and navigate obstacles independently.

Another important area of improvement is the capacity to store and process the information captured by the technology. A single drone flight usually produces hundreds of megabytes of data that need to be processed. This requires sophisticated programs to analyze data and produce the information researchers need. The progress in pattern recognition algorithms and big data science is promising; it helps conservation biologists make sense of the overwhelming volume of data produced.

A light brown/gray lizard stands on the ground surrounded by dirt and fallen leaves

Developing partnerships with local stakeholders is an important component of successful fieldwork. SCBI researchers work with indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon to monitor wildlife in their territories. They train technicians to use passive monitoring devices, such as camera traps and acoustic recorders, to keep an eye (and an ear) on mammals, birds, frogs and insects.

What makes you optimistic about this research?

The future will see new uses for drones that we can only dream about for now. Drones could be coupled with other new technologies used in conservation—like camera traps and acoustic monitoring—and could deploy these technologies in remote areas and retrieve data. Scientists could use drones to collect samples that could be analyzed for traces of animal and plant DNA. The machines could help place radio-collars on wild animals, then track them automatically. They could capture images of poachers and identify them to authorities—that would make our conservation hero the ultimate environmental crime fighter. Basically, the sky is the limit!

This story was featured in the March 2019 issue of National Zoo News. Learn more about the Center for Conservation and Sustainability.