Wildlife Drones has developed advanced tracking technology for locating tagged animals in real time, assisting in the conservation of endangered species and managing pests threatening ecosystems.
Dr Debbie Saunders didn’t set out to develop her breakthrough wildlife tracking technology for profit. Rather, the ecologist and passionate conservationist was inspired by the need to better understand the movements of a small, critically endangered parrot.
Monitoring Australia’s Swift Parrot for the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, she found existing technology insufficient for tracking the migratory species. Saunders explains that it is difficult to keep track of the rare bird as it travels from its Tasmanian breeding grounds to various parts of Australia’s mainland. This is because they are too small to be fitted with a GPS or satellite tag. Only a tiny very high frequency (VHF) radio tag is suitable – and those signals could only be tracked with a hand-held receiver, one at a time.
“There was a big knowledge gap that I wanted to fill so that we could better manage this declining species,” she says of the Swift Parrot that was also the subject of her PhD. So she set about creating technology to do the job.
Benefits of drone technology
At the time drone technology was developing quickly, so Saunders decided to investigate its potential to better track the enigmatic, fast-moving parrot.
She soon realised that improving tracking capability with drones would have far greater reach than her own project.
Mounting VHF radio transmitters on to long-range drones significantly improves the ability to monitor a range of animals in the wild, she says. It enables real-time tracking across large and inhospitable areas inaccessible to researchers who had been restricted to using cumbersome hand-held surveillance systems. And monitoring can be undertaken at a distance, ensuring that animals are not disturbed through the process.
“It’s a complete game-changer because previously people were walking around with their arm up in the air trying to pick up signals which is incredibly time-consuming, really labour-intensive and impossible in dense vegetation,” she says. “Flying across landscapes effortlessly with the drone takes the legwork out, and you can be much more efficient and less intrusive.”
Additionally, the technology that Saunders has developed can detect up to 40 tagged animals at once via their own unique frequency, providing a fuller picture of species interactions and movements than ever before.
A grant to meet customer needs
As an ecologist, Saunders built up her commercialisation and technical experience by joining the Canberra Innovation Network. She also worked with an experienced radio frequency engineer to develop the technology.
After a couple of years building a prototype, validating the market and establishing her company, Wildlife Drones, she needed to scale-up. And this is where a $419,270 Accelerating Commercialisation grant provided through the Australian Government’s Entrepreneurs’ Programme was “incredibly valuable”, she says. Matched by angel investors and venture fund Uniseed, it provided the means to employ technology experts who refined both the hardware and software to meet the needs of her customers.
“The Accelerating Commercialisation grant was instrumental in that it gave us a leg-up at a time when we had very limited resources – enabling us to test our systems in different environments, from deserts to islands and tropical forests,” she says. “And because most of our clients work in remote areas it was important to develop a product that they could use themselves rather than relying on specialist drone pilots.”
Today, Wildlife Drones’ clients across Australia, the United States and Asia include government agencies involved in natural resource management, national parks and wildlife services. Universities, NGOs and zoos are also using the technology to monitor rescued or captive-bred animals as they are reintegrated into the wild.
Conservation and control
In Vietnam, for example, the technology is being used to help save the Sunda pangolin. One of the world’s most trafficked species and under threat from the illegal wildlife trade, Wildlife Drones’ sensors are keeping track of rescued animals released back into their remote and rugged natural habitat.
As well as supporting conservation and rehabilitation, the technology is also being used for control. In Australia insights are being gained into the movements of feral cats to help manage the landscape.
And in the US, in the Everglades in Florida, researchers are using the technology to keep an eye on the introduced Burmese python, thought to be responsible for a sharp decline of small mammals in the area. At the opposite end of the country, in Washington State, Wildlife Drones’ sensors are tracking giant hornets, an invasive species threatening bees and the honey industry.
“It all centres around conservation, really,” says Saunders. “We are either helping to control an invasive species damaging the ecosystem, or understanding an endangered species so we can better protect or manage it.”
Sensors build biodiversity picture
The Wildlife Drones system tracks tagged animals via a purpose-built radio telemetry sensor, or ‘payload’, attached to a quadcopter drone. Consisting of an antenna and computer radio receiver, the payload continually ‘listens’ for signals, recording and transmitting data from multiple animals to a laptop for real-time tracking and analysis.
The company also provides thermal imaging services to monitor larger untagged animals such as koalas and gliders, providing an insight into population numbers in particular areas.
On the horizon Saunders sees the technology evolving to include more information on animals in the landscape to build a bigger picture of biodiversity. Data uploaded to a drone’s computer interface could, for example, incorporate photographs from camera traps, acoustic monitors and even environmental DNA sourced from the air.
“There’s a lot of data out there housed in many different databases from several types of sensors, so we are exploring how we can pull that together,” she says.
Supporting healthy ecosystems
Arthur Pappas, a Commercialisation Facilitator with i4 Connect – the government’s Accelerating Commercialisation service delivery partner, has known Saunders for a number of years in the Canberra ecosystem.
He says that while the technology provides a significant value proposition, Saunders herself is a key factor in the company’s success.
“Debbie is an incredibly passionate conservationist as well as a dedicated start-up founder blending a deep knowledge of her subject with really good business nous,” he says. “And Wildlife Drones is a classic example of a business opportunity borne from a problem that needs to be solved.”
Pappas says Wildlife Drones’ technology is an increasingly important tool for conservation managers gathering data around biodiversity and wildlife numbers to maintain healthy ecosystems in the face of climate change and other environmental stressors.
For the Swift Parrot, the technology revealed a previously unknown roost site on private property in NSW inhabited by more than 200 birds – the largest flock ever recorded in the region and representing more than 10 per cent of their entire population.
And while the species remains under threat from land clearing and logging, Saunders takes some solace that her technology is providing insights to support conservation efforts.
When, for example, large tracts of a NSW roost site were cleared, Wildlife Drones’ data was used to underpin the case to fund habitat restoration in the area. “The technology enabled us to identify some really important sites and get surrounding landholders involved in restoring habitat for the species,” she says.
Saunders says the most satisfying part of developing her start-up is the opportunity it has provided to create positive change on the ground.
“I get to work with so many people who are doing amazing things, getting rid of feral pests and reintroducing native species and they’re thriving,” she says. “There’s really fantastic work going on all around the world with people doing their bit in their local patch. And for me, as a conservation ecologist, to support that is very rewarding.”