Lesedauer: 10 Minuten

Dr. Israel Parker is a researcher and mammologist. He has been working at the Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute since 2012 and recently moved to Munich with his family. Charis Höft-Schreiner interviews him for TechTalkers about one of his exciting fields of activity – research with drones in wildlife and its habitats.

Charis Höft-Schreiner: How did you come up with the idea of using drones for wildlife research?

Dr. Israel Parker: First, my scientific interest is to explore wildlife. Using drones in wildlife research is based on our need to efficiently study small objects such as mammals and their tracks. Also, it enables efficient data collection, saves time, and reduces costs. Additionally, the low accident risk minimizes habitat and wildlife damage. Moreover, drones are available at different budgets. Furthermore, the advances in photographic and sensor technologies, including LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) and radar scanners, are impressive. Besides, there’s been plenty of work on unmanned aerial systems (UAS) with wildlife and conservation in general. They tend to focus on things they can easily image, like habitat, trees, or big animals. The ubiquity of these systems made us think about whether we can use them for more specific tasks.

What are the key advantages of using drones in wildlife research? How do they compare to traditional methods of data collection?

Many things need to be considered when asking this question. The use of drones only makes sense if important niches are covered. Is the data collection more efficient than conventional methods? Does it save time and money? Does it prevent us from having to be in dangerous or inaccessible areas? How efficient are these devices and do we trust them? Much of our work doesn’t take place near roads but miles away from civilization. So, a drone probably can’t search for specific things like a rabbit’s fecal pellets, a sign of an animal’s presence, in the grass as well as I can. However, for larger tasks, like surveying their habitat, drones are a great help. It makes sense if it’s cheaper, safer, and as effective as conventional methods. The problem is that this technology is still in its infancy for many of these tasks.

What must be considered for data collection with drones?

Drones can only fly under certain conditions. Weather conditions such as strong winds, rain, or extreme heat and cold can cause problems. Heavy rain or a tide change can lead to interruptions during surveys. Additionally, limited battery life is a problem. Sometimes, the drones need to fly to a destination over longer distances. Imagine the drone flies to a certain area but cannot return due to an empty battery. However, it’s not just about the environment, but also the people and how they feel about it.

How do people feel about drones?

They value their privacy highly. If a drone flies over people’s property, it’s often a problem – even if it’s legally permissible. The already tense relationship between the public and government may become even more strained. Possibly for security reasons, to create a specific impression. Therefore, we are always looking for suitable flight paths and informing the public about it.

Are there specific species or habitats where drone-based research is particularly effective?

Habitat is an important factor that can be observed with UAV from an ideal height. Our recent work indicates that drones are useful for smaller, elusive animals, especially terrestrial mammals like rabbits. We can observe them better from a vertical perspective when they are outdoors and visible. It’s important to note visible signs such as feces, trampled grass, or vegetation consumption from this perspective. This helps us learn more about different species. One of these is the endangered ‘Lower Keys Marsh Rabbit,’ a subspecies of marsh rabbits. Since they are very shy, capturing them by simple observation in the wild is extremely difficult. Their traces, such as fecal pellets, give us information about the population of these rabbits.

Have you encountered unexpected challenges or limitations when using drones in your research?

In my opinion, the biggest challenge is the novelty from a regulatory perspective. Not only at the broader national level but also at the local level. Getting permission to fly drones in certain locations is an issue. Sometimes local decision-makers aren’t sure whether something is allowed.

How did you overcome the regulatory challenges?

Permits, liability, and insurance are significant topics of discussion in this regard. However, we chose the easiest way: teaming up with an expert to deal with the regulatory challenges. We collaborate with a campus geospatial lab specializing in drones. They already have a licensed operator and can do some of the geospatial analysis.

Are there developments in drone technology for wildlife research that you’re particularly excited about?

Drones now come equipped with excellent sensors to navigate obstacles. I can send them out without worrying about them colliding with trees or the like. While I’m not an expert in remote sensing, one of my keen interests lies in habitat modeling. This is a method used to analyze and visualize the habitats of certain species. It helps us to understand the current conditions. If necessary, we can improve the habitat for the animals. Being able to map individual plant communities and different types of vegetation is fantastic. I can use LiDAR, conduct a flight mission, or perform an infrared survey. Collecting precise vegetation data is genuinely intriguing. The great thing on the sensor side is the ability to sync and upload these highly detailed data in real-time.

What advice would you offer to aspiring researchers interested in integrating drone technology into their wildlife studies?

Start with what you have locally. Go to a local drone club. If possible, engage in internships and field research, collaborate with authorities. Familiarize yourself with general rules, important laws, and regulations governing drone usage. This foundational knowledge will guide you on when, where, and how to use drones in your wildlife studies. Many drones are very user-friendly for beginners. If you are familiar with video game controllers, you will find drone controls intuitive. Even your smartphone can serve as a controller. For students, universities of applied sciences usually have a spatial sciences group. These people can be an inexhaustible source of knowledge. My advice is to gain as much experience as possible.

Thank you very much for your time and the interesting insights you shared with us, Dr. Parker.

 

More information about Dr. Parker:
Dr. Israel Parker is an enthusiast when it comes to wildlife. He was born in Texas and holds a bachelor’s degree in wildlife science, followed by a master’s and doctorate in wildlife and fisheries science. Dr. Parker has worked as a mammologist in various parts of the United States. He educates and advocates for endangered species. His work helps to analyze and understand the habitats and behavior of different species. Through years of experience as a lecturer and supervisor of master’s and doctoral students at the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences at Texas A&M University, he has inspired numerous students in his field. Over time, various types of data collection and analysis led him to research with drones.

 

Sources:

Own recordings of the interview

https://nri.tamu.edu/people/research/israel-parker/

 

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