Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! Actually, it’s tens of thousands of birds and a single drone, an unmanned flying machine with a wingspan the size of an extra-large pizza. And on a recent afternoon, while the birds land, flit and flutter in the plowed cornfields and watering holes of the California Delta, it’s not Superman we see but a drone hovering 125 feet overhead, whirring like a weed-whacker, its attached camera recording the avian lovefest down on the ground.
In a novel use of drone technology to further conservation efforts, researchers from The Nature Conservancy have brought their $2,000 DJI Phantom quadcopter into the heart of Staten Island, a working farm west of Lodi acquired by the group in 2001 as both a living laboratory and a refuge for migratory birds. Their mission: to use the drone-generated aerial photos and videos to get a more accurate count of the threatened greater sandhill crane, the island’s largest and most majestic winter visitor.
“We’re standing in the middle of one of the world’s greatest migratory routes,” says Rodd Kelsey, the group’s lead scientist for working landscapes. “But even while the cranes’ numbers have slowly increased in the past 20 years, we continue to lose more and more habitat, which means they’re still in peril.”
Kelsey and his colleagues have been testing out the drone for the past few months. They’re hoping the clear and easily countable images of birds photographed from above – both in daylight and at night with a fixed-wing machine and infrared camera – will provide a better census than volunteers could gather gazing over a hard-to-read landscape full of frenetic feathered residents.
Better numbers will help scientists manage this crucial 9,200-acre home away from home, part of the 46,000-acre Cosumnes River Preserve and home to 15 percent of the Central Valley’s 9,000 greater sandhill cranes during migratory seasons. Armed with this data, they can then fine-tune their conservation-management efforts, flooding certain fields, for example, while leaving others dry.
Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com