Drones and big data: the next frontier in the fight against wildlife extinction

Technology is playing an increasingly vital role in conservation and ecology research. Drones in particular hold huge potential in the fight to save the world’s remaining wildlife from extinction. With their help, researchers can now track wild animals through dense forests and monitor whales in vast oceans. The World Wildlife Fund for Nature estimates that up to five living species on earth become extinct every day, making it vital that universities develop new technologies to capture the data that can persuade those in power to act, says The Guardian. The British International Education Association and the Born Free Foundation hosted a conference in January to highlight the importance of technological solutions in protecting vulnerable species and ecosystems. Speakers underlined how technology can help conservation efforts: fixed-wing drones can land on water and circle high above the Indian Ocean to spot whales, rays and illegal fishing, while artificial intelligence-enabled infrared cameras are able to identify members of an individual species or human poachers, even through thick environmental cover. But researchers are still learning how to gather new types of imagery and pull new data sets from them. Equally, teaching in university conservation and ecology courses differs. Some teach drone surveying methods in depth while others don’t even mention them. “The fact is, using drones in itself is quite a leap into the interdisciplinary ‘unknown’ of engineering and piloting, and potentially an area where lecturers may not feel confident to teach yet,” Schiele says. “Ecologists are in the early days of officially integrating this into the curriculum and it is gaining traction. It has to.” The solutions are more support from tech companies, better teaching in universities to help students overcome their fears of coding, and finding ways to link technologies together in an internet-of-things concept where all the different sensors, including GPS, drones, cameras and sensors, work together.