Researchers in Africa are trying out an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) for doing aerial surveys of large mammals. The drone chosen by the researchers was a Gatewing X100, a small, electric robot plane equipped with GPS, inertial measurement, and other sensors. Aerial surveys using traditional manned aircraft are very expensive to do, so this research could potentially result in new survey methods that will save wildlife researchers a lot of money. The goal was to determine flight parameters and the animals reaction to drone. From the paper:
The use of UAS such as the ×100 opens interesting possibilities for counting elephants. The technology is sufficient to count African elephants in savannahs: flight implementation is easier (very short airfield), safer (no operators on board) and the UAS is reliable in very rough conditions. The UAS flights require civil aviation authorization. However, the main drawback of the Gatewing ×100 is its low autonomy. Unlike a light aircraft, this small UAS cannot cover large areas in a minimum of time (4 to 6 hours per flight). If some UAS cost as much as an aircraft, the logistic and the running costs of the UAS are lower. However, the cost per area covered (km−2) is almost 10 times higher than that of an aircraft. Also, the characteristic shape and biometry of elephants on the nadir images allow us to consider use of computer recognition algorithms.
Overall, they had good results. The higher cost per area is due to the Gatewing X100 drone's short flight time; the drone replacement cost, given a lifetime of about 40 flights (around 24 hours total flight per drone); and a repair cost for cameras, antennas, servos, and other components. Elephants and two other large animal species were observed. The researchers noted that the drone was able to pass above all the animals almost unnoticed. The animals never exhibited any flight or warning behaviors. For more details on the project, read the researchers paper, "Unmanned Aerial Survey of Elephants". Also see our previous story on the USGS experiments using drones to reduce the costs of their aerial surveys from $30,000 USD to $3,000 USD per mission..