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  • When we think of Nepal,

  • we tend to think of the snow-capped mountains

  • of the Himalayas,

  • the crystal-clear still waters of its alpine lakes,

  • or the huge expanse of its grasslands.

  • What some of us may not realize

  • is that in the Himalayan foothills,

  • where the climate is much warmer

  • and the landscape much greener,

  • there lives a great diversity of wildlife,

  • including the one-horned rhinoceros,

  • the Asian elephant

  • and the Bengal tiger.

  • But unfortunately, these animals

  • are under constant threat from poachers

  • who hunt and kill them for their body parts.

  • To stop the killing of these animals,

  • battalions of soldiers and rangers

  • are sent to protect Nepal's national parks,

  • but that is not an easy task,

  • because these soldiers have to patrol

  • thousands of hectares of forests on foot

  • or elephant backs.

  • It is also risky for these soldiers

  • when they get into gunfights with poachers,

  • and therefore Nepal is always looking

  • for new ways to help with protecting the forests

  • and wildlife.

  • Well recently, Nepal acquired a new tool

  • in the fight against wildlife crime,

  • and these are drones,

  • or more specifically, conservation drones.

  • For about a year now, my colleagues and I

  • have been building drones for Nepal

  • and training the park protection personnel

  • on the use of these drones.

  • Not only does a drone give you

  • a bird's-eye view of the landscape,

  • but it also allows you to capture detailed,

  • high-resolution images of objects on the ground.

  • This, for example, is a pair of rhinoceros

  • taking a cooling bath on a hot summer day

  • in the lowlands of Nepal.

  • Now we believe that drones have

  • tremendous potential,

  • not only for combating wildlife crime,

  • but also for monitoring the health

  • of these wildlife populations.

  • So what is a drone?

  • Well, the kind of drone I'm talking about

  • is simply a model aircraft

  • fitted with an autopilot system,

  • and this autopilot unit contains a tiny computer,

  • a GPS, a compass, a barometric altimeter

  • and a few other sensors.

  • Now a drone like this

  • is meant to carry a useful payload,

  • such as a video camera

  • or a photographic camera.

  • It also requires a software that allows the user

  • to program a mission,

  • to tell the drone where to go.

  • Now people I talk to are often surprised

  • when they hear that these are the only

  • four components that make a conservation drone,

  • but they are even more surprised

  • when I tell them how affordable these components are.

  • The facts is, a conservation drone

  • doesn't cost very much more than

  • a good laptop computer

  • or a decent pair of binoculars.

  • So now that you've built your own conservation drone,

  • you probably want to go fly it,

  • but how does one fly a drone?

  • Well, actually, you don't,

  • because the drone flies itself.

  • All you have to do is to program a mission

  • to tell the drone where to fly.

  • But you simply do that by clicking on

  • a few way points on the Google Maps interface

  • using the open-source software.

  • Those missions could be as simple

  • as just a few way points,

  • or they could be slightly longer and more complicated,

  • to fly along a river system.

  • Sometimes, we fly the drone in a lawnmower-type pattern

  • and take pictures of that area,

  • and those pictures can be processed

  • to produce a map of that forest.

  • Other researchers might want to fly the drone

  • along the boundaries of a forest

  • to watch out for poachers or people

  • who might be trying to enter the forest illegally.

  • Now whatever your mission is,

  • once you've programmed it,

  • you simply upload it to the autopilot system,

  • bring your drone to the field,

  • and launch it simply by tossing it in the air.

  • And often we'll go about this mission

  • taking pictures or videos along the way,

  • and usually at that point,

  • we will go grab ourselves a cup of coffee,

  • sit back, and relax for the next few minutes,

  • although some of us sit back and panic for the next few minutes

  • worrying that the drone will not return.

  • Usually it does, and when it does,

  • it even lands automatically.

  • So what can we do with a conservation drone?

  • Well, when we built our first prototype drone,

  • our main objective was to fly it over

  • a remote rainforest in North Sumatra, Indonesia,

  • to look for the nest of a species of great ape

  • known as the orangutan.

  • The reason we wanted to do that was because

  • we needed to know how many individuals

  • of this species are still left in that forest.

  • Now the traditional method of surveying

  • for orangutans is to walk the forest on foot

  • carrying heavy equipment

  • and to use a pair of binoculars to look up in the treetops

  • where you might find an orangutan or its nest.

  • Now as you can imagine,

  • that is a very time-consuming, labor-intensive,

  • and costly process,

  • so we were hoping that drones

  • could significantly reduce the cost of surveying

  • for orangutan populations in Indonesia

  • and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

  • So we were very excited when we captured

  • our first pair of orangutan nests on camera.

  • And this is it; this is the first ever picture

  • of orangutan nests taken with a drone.

  • Since then we have taken pictures

  • of dozens of these nests

  • from around various parts of Southeast Asia,

  • and we're now working with computer scientists

  • to develop algorithms that can automatically count

  • the number of nests from the thousands

  • of photos we've collected so far.

  • But nests are not the only objects

  • these drones can detect.

  • This is a wild orangutan

  • happily feeding on top of a palm tree,

  • seemingly oblivious to our drone that was flying overhead,

  • not once but several times.

  • We've also taken pictures of other animals

  • including forest buffalos in Gabon,

  • elephants, and even turtle nests.

  • But besides taking pictures of just the animals themselves,

  • we also take pictures of the habitats these animals live in,

  • because we want to keep track

  • of the health of these habitats.

  • Sometimes, we zoom out a little

  • and look at other things that might be happening

  • in the landscape.

  • This is an oil palm plantation in Sumatra.

  • Now oil palm is a major driver of deforestation

  • in that part of the world,

  • so we wanted to use this new drone technology

  • to keep track of the spread of these plantations

  • in Southeast Asia.

  • But drones could also be used to keep track of

  • illegal logging activities.

  • This is a recently logged forest,

  • again in Sumatra.

  • You could even still see the processed

  • wooden planks left on the ground.

  • But perhaps the most exciting part

  • about taking pictures from the air is

  • we could later stitch these pictures together

  • using special software to create a map

  • of the entire landscape, and this map

  • gives us crucial information

  • for monitoring land use change,

  • to let us know where and when plantations might be expanding,

  • where forests might be contracting,

  • or where fires might be breaking out.

  • Aerial images could also be processed

  • to produce three-dimensional

  • computer models of forests.

  • Now these models are not just visually appealing,

  • but they are also geometrically accurate,

  • which means researchers can now measure

  • the distance between trees,

  • calculate surface area, the volume of vegetation,

  • and so on, all of which are important information

  • for monitoring the health of these forests.

  • Recently, we've also begun experimenting

  • with thermal imaging cameras.

  • Now these cameras can detect

  • heat-emitting objects from the ground,

  • and therefore they are very useful for detecting poachers or their campfires at night.

  • So I've told you quite a lot about

  • what conservation drones are,

  • how you might operate one of these drones,

  • and what a drone could do for you.

  • I will now tell you where conservation drones

  • are being used around the world.

  • We built our first prototype drones in Switzerland.

  • We brought a few of these to Indonesia

  • for the first few test flights.

  • Since then, we've been building drones

  • for our collaborators from around the world,

  • and these include fellow biologists

  • and partners from major conservation organizations.

  • Perhaps the best and most rewarding part

  • about working with these collaborators

  • is the feedback they give us

  • on how to improve our drones.

  • Building drones for us is

  • a constant work in progress.

  • We are constantly trying to improve them in terms of

  • their range, their ruggedness,

  • and the amount of payload they can carry.

  • We also work with collaborators

  • to discover new ways of using these drones.

  • For example, camera traps are a common tool

  • used by biologists to take pictures of shy animals

  • hiding in the forests,

  • but these are motion-activated cameras,

  • so they snap a picture every time an animal

  • crosses their path.

  • But the problem with camera traps

  • is that the researcher has to go back to the forest

  • every so often to retrieve those images,

  • and that takes a lot of time,

  • especially if there are dozens

  • or hundreds of these cameras placed in the forest.

  • Now a drone could be designed to perform the task

  • much more efficiently.

  • This drone, carrying a special sensor,

  • could be flown over the forest

  • and remotely download these images

  • from wi-fienabled cameras.

  • Radio collars are another tool

  • that's commonly used by biologists.

  • Now these collars are put onto animals.

  • They transmit a radio signal which allows

  • the researcher to track the movements of these animals across the landscape.

  • But the traditional way of tracking animals

  • is pretty ridiculous,

  • because it requires the researcher to be walking

  • on the ground carrying a huge and cumbersome radio antenna,

  • not unlike those old TV antennae we used to have

  • on our rooftops. Some of us still do.

  • A drone could be used to do the same job

  • much more efficiently.

  • Why not equip a drone

  • with a scanning radio receiver,

  • fly that over the forest canopy

  • in a certain pattern

  • which would allow the user or the operator

  • to triangulate the location

  • of these radio-collared animals remotely

  • without having to step foot in the forest.

  • A third and perhaps most exciting way

  • of using these drones

  • is to fly them to a really remote,

  • never-explored-before rainforest

  • somewhere hidden in the tropics,

  • and parachute down a tiny spy microphone

  • that would