Droning the Himalayas: Scaling Up the Conservation Efforts

News | Posted on 2014-06-04

Rugged terrain and thick forest cover impose great challenges in assessing and monitoring wildlife, forest fires, poaching, illegal logging, and other activities necessary to inform critical conservation efforts in Bhutan. Across the globe, satellite images are increasingly used for collecting such landscape-level data. However, satellite images are limited in frequency of observations. In addition, high-resolution images-the kind needed for meaningful local conservation action—are limited and often cost prohibitive.

On 1 June 2014, coinciding with the opening ceremony of the 14th International Society of Ethnobiology Congress held in Bumthang, Bhutan, the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment (UWICE) conducted a successful test flight of Bhutan’s first ever drone acquired for conservation purposes. Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) that offer a new and exciting approach for environmental research, monitoring and management in difficult landscapes like Bhutan. Drones fly pre-programmed missions, acquiring high-resolution (10 cm pixels) aerial photographs or videos along specified flight paths. In a single 50-minute flight, a drone can survey an area of 10km2. The aerial photographs can be stitched together to produce near real-time land cover maps. 

On its maiden flight in Bumthang, the drone—which weighs 0.7kg and has a wingspan less than 1m long—awed a crowd of almost 400 international and 200 Bhutanese spectators, with its deft aerial maneuvers and a smooth unpiloted landing. The test flight was conducted in the presence of Her Royal Highness Ashi Chimi Yangzom Wangchuck and several Distinguished Dignitaries.

UWICE will use the Drone for monitoring wildlife and mapping snow cover, land cover dynamics, forest fires, and tree line range shift. The drone will also be used to count the wild animals such as elephants along the southern parts of Bhutan. The drone was generously donated by the Bhutan Foundation.   

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