From Battle To Birds: Drones Get Second Life Counting Critters

Apr 25, 2013
Originally published on April 25, 2013 7:16 pm

The U.S. military and law enforcement agencies have seen increased public scrutiny on the domestic use of the robotically piloted planes known as drones. Working on the sidelines of this debate, the U.S. Geological Survey has been trying to find a second life for retired military drones in the areas of environmental and wildlife management. Instead of watching the battlefield, these drones are watching birds.

Earlier this month, scientists spent three days flying a small 4-pound Raven A drone above the breeding grounds of the greater sage grouse, about 120 miles northwest of Denver. USGS hydrologist Chris Holmquist-Johnson says researchers are trying to figure out if they can use the drone to capture photo and thermal images of the birds without disturbing them.

"So far what we've seen is that they really don't seem to be bothered by it," Homquist-Johnson says. "We're able to get that imagery and they don't flush or move on to a new location."

The experiment is part of a larger project. In recent years, the National Unmanned Aircraft Systems Project Office has coordinated with state and federal agencies to use drones to study everything from mountain pine beetle damage in Colorado to documenting bank erosion along the Missouri River in South Dakota.

The USGS also has had previous success with birds, counting Sandhill Cranes in Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge in southern Colorado. USGS biologist Leanne Hanson says that in 2011, scientists compared counts from the results of Raven A flights to those of ground observers and found the flight data accurate enough to switch to using drones exclusively in 2012.

In future years, the practice could save federal agencies money, Hanson says. "Our estimates are that it would be a 10th of the cost."

Brian Rutledge, executive director of Audubon Rockies, has been watching the population of sage grouse decline for decades across the West. And while he says he's in favor of any technology that might lead to a more accurate count of the species, he doesn't think any machine can entirely replace human observers on the ground.

"This is something that gives us eyes in the sky — no pun intended — to find places and creatures that we wouldn't have on record otherwise," he says. "These will give us hints as to where we ought to look, [and] help us understand populations better. They'll never replace somebody with a notebook and a pair of binoculars or a good spotting scope."

Researchers are circumspect about how much they think the remote planes will advance bird counts. Holmquist-Johnson says one limitation comes from the lower resolution cameras and sensors in the Raven A. Overall, experiments with drone technology are still in the very early stages, he says.

"As systems get better and sensors are better, then we'll be able to do an even better job of the science," he says.

The USGS office overseeing these robotic planes gets more than a dozen calls a week from other Interior Department units interested in using them. Upcoming experiments include a climate change study near Niwot, Colo., efforts to count mule deer in Nevada, and a survey of pygmy rabbit habitat in Idaho.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

We've talked a great deal on this program about the use of U.S. drones overseas in places like Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan. But we're going to hear now about military drones flying over the U.S. and for some surprising reasons.

As Grace Hood of member station KUNC reports from Colorado, the U.S. Geological Survey is trying to find a second life for retired drones.

GRACE HOOD, BYLINE: When you think of drones, you don't necessarily think of bird watching, but that's what Geological Survey hydrologist Chris Holmquist-Johnson is demonstrating. He's standing on a gravel road surrounded by miles of sage brush southeast of Steamboat Springs.

CHRIS HOLMQUIST-JOHNSON: Prop clear.

HOOD: After one last check with his team, he launches a small four-pound Raven A drone into the wind.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRONE REVVING)

HOOD: Holmquist-Johnson explains that at this point, scientists are trying to figure out if they can capture thermal and photo images of the greater sage grouse using the drone. And what do the birds think?

HOLMQUIST-JOHNSON: So far, what we've seen is that they really don't seem to be bothered by it. We're able to get that imagery, and they don't flush or, you know, move on to a new location. So we're able to get images of them from the plane.

HOOD: The experiment is part of a larger project within the Department of Interior's Geological Survey to use retired military drones. In recent years, it's coordinated with state and federal agencies to use drones to study everything from mountain pine beetle damage in Colorado to documenting bank erosion along the Missouri River in South Dakota.

LEANNE HANSON: Are you going to put it into nav mode, Chris, and...

HOOD: Biologist Leanne Hanson cites one promising drone experiment, counting Sandhill cranes. In 2011, scientists compared results from Raven A flights to those of ground observers. They were accurate enough that in 2012 only the drone was used. In future years, Hanson says the practice could save federal agencies money.

HANSON: Our estimates are that it would be a tenth of the cost.

BRIAN RUTLEDGE: This is something that gives us eyes in the sky - no pun intended - to find places and creatures that we wouldn't have on record, otherwise.

HOOD: Brian Rutledge is executive director of Audubon Rockies. He's been watching the population of sage grouse decline for decades across the West. While he says he's in favor of any technology that might lead to a more accurate count of the species, he doesn't think any machine can entirely replace human ground observers.

RUTLEDGE: These will give us hints as to where we ought to look, help us understand populations better. They'll never replace somebody with a notebook and, you know, a pair of binoculars or a good spotting scope.

HOOD: Back at the test site, Geological Survey biologist Leanne Hanson watches as her colleagues guide the aircraft in with a remote control and no landing strip.

HANSON: And now, it's just gliding down and breaks apart. And again, it's designed to do that, to dissipate the energy.

HOOD: Here, researchers are also circumspect about how far this drone will advance bird counts.

HOLMQUIST-JOHNSON: Battery is out.

HOOD: Chris Holmquist-Johnson says one limitation comes from the lower resolution cameras in the Raven A. Overall, experiments with drone technology are in the very early stages.

HOLMQUIST-JOHNSON: As systems get better and sensors are better, then, you know, we'll be able to even do a better job of the science we're trying to answer.

HOOD: The Geological Survey office overseeing these drones gets more than a dozen calls a week from other Interior Department units interested in using them. Some upcoming experiments includes surveying pygmy rabbit habitat in Idaho and counting mule deer in Nevada.

For NPR News, I'm Grace Hood. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.