Conservationists get bird's eye view with high-tech toy

By Alisha Lewis

Professor John Brooks and Dr Barbara Bollard-Breen will use the UAV to help chart New Zealand's flora and fauna from the air. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Professor John Brooks and Dr Barbara Bollard-Breen will use the UAV to help chart New Zealand's flora and fauna from the air. Photo / Brett Phibbs

A high-tech toy plane look-alike is set to gather detailed intelligence on New Zealand.

And although unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, are known for their use by the military, this one will be used as the eyes in the sky of two conservation scientists.

The Auckland University of Technology drone is to be deployed over the country to improve on the poor quality of satellite images charting the flora and fauna.

The UAV is the brainchild of AUT environmental scientist Barbara Bollard-Breen and microbiologist John Brooks.

The university is the first organisation in New Zealand to use a UAV for non-defence purposes.

Dr Bollard-Breen said she was frustrated with the poor-quality satellite images being used for data collecting.

"The problem with satellite images was we couldn't distinguish different plants. We needed to be able to fly and get closer. So this has opened up windows of opportunity."

The researchers hope to use the technology to monitor species such as Maui's dolphin and sea bird populations, as well as mapping vegetation restoration and the landscape.

"Essentially, it has all the same controls as a full-sized aircraft," said Professor Brooks.

"But because it's flying without a pilot on board, you have to programme the on-board autopilot. Then we monitor it from the ground. The autopilot will fly for up to two hours by itself."

Each flight is treated like a manned one - it has to go through all the standard checks and the Civil Aviation Authority must give permission for it to fly in the airspace.

"And what makes it even more different from a toy aircraft is the camera," said Dr Bollard-Breen. "It's a very, very special camera that takes both video and stills and is set up to monitor vegetation exactly the way we want it to."

The pair worked alongside Kiwi company SkyCam to design the UAV according to their specifications. "SkyCam have been fantastic with their support," said Dr Bollard-Breen.

"And in turn, we felt it was important to support a local company rather than importing from somewhere else."

SkyCam director Rene Redmond said the technology embodied in the aircraft's autopilot was "arguably world-leading for its size".

"With a highly efficient airframe design for extended flight times and a range of safety features, it's a cost-effective way to achieve a range of aerial tasks."

The team had to get permission from the Defence Technology Agency before they could even start building the UAV.

"It was just getting vetted and making sure everything was above board, because until now this has just been a military device in New Zealand," said Professor Brooks.

They also worked closely with the University of Queensland, which is already using a UAV for conservation research.

"Meeting with them just confirmed that this is a good decision," said Dr Bollard-Breen.

"They answered a lot of questions about just how effective this thing is.

"It's a serious piece of equipment and it's just exciting that AUT is leading this innovation in New Zealand."

Both scientists said they were looking forward to getting senior students on board with the project, which will go on for many years.

"It's very cutting edge for conservation science, what we're going to bring to these students," said Dr Bollard-Breen. "It's fun."

- NZ Herald

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