Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Watching over our wildlife - from above

Philip Solaris, of robotic craft company X-craft, has won a major award for the drone project he has developed alongside Auckland conservationist John Sumich. Photo / Supplied
Philip Solaris, of robotic craft company X-craft, has won a major award for the drone project he has developed alongside Auckland conservationist John Sumich. Photo / Supplied

Could we use drones to keep a close watch on our cherished threatened species?

A clever tracking innovation, combining the use of drones with radio tags and dubbed DroneCounts, has scooped a major conservation award.

The two Kiwis behind it ultimately want to develop a drone that could fly over the wild, pin-pointing multiple tagged animals at once.

It is one of three innovations awarded $25,000 prizes at this year's WWF's Conservation Innovation Awards.

"Our goal is to not only to protect endangered species but to provide new tools that will assist to reinvigorate the introduction of endangered wildlife into a sustainable environment," said Philip Solaris, of robotic craft company X-craft, who has teamed up with Auckland conservationist John Sumich on the project.

While radio tags have long been used in conservation, they've come with many drawbacks.

Hand-held receivers can prove difficult to use in dense bush, where deep valleys, hills and ridges can reflect or interfere with signals.

Tracking down nocturnally-active species that hide for much of the day in dens, like kiwi, was also a challenge with current technology.

While fixed-wing planes could be used to pick up tags, the approach was expensive and limited by weather and daylight hours.

Drones, however, could easily fly over dense forest and wide wetlands at any time of the day, in more weather conditions, and at a fraction of the cost, Sumich said.

"The locations could be stored on board to then be downloaded on return, or it could be transmitted to a base unit while aloft."

The idea came about when the pair tested a prototype, dubbed the DuckaTron, to monitor pateke in dense wetland in the Waitakere Ranges.

"It was immediately obvious that the idea of monitoring by drone would have many applications beyond the one species."

Their project has already attracted keen interest from kiwi programme managers, as well as an anti-rhino poaching group in South Africa.

"They were disappointed to find we were still at the developmental stage."

It's not the first time drones have helped conservation efforts.

Across the world, camera-mounted drones are now widely used to monitor species from above, while here, Auckland University of Technology scientists have deployed them to catalogue the spectral signatures of hundreds of native plants, building a biodiversity database.

The Conservation Innovation Awards, supported by The Tindall Foundation, this year attracted more than 40 entries from across the country.

The other two winners were a floating device developed by the Water Action Initiative to measure temperature, conductivity, turbidity and pH levels in water, and an app allowing people to record and map sightings of kauri dieback.

"These awards are an exciting collaboration between people who are all passionate about improving the natural environment," WWF head of New Zealand projects Michele Frank said.

"By harnessing creativity like this we can bring better tools to the community volunteer army and better protect our wildlife, sooner."

- NZ Herald

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