Remotely Piloted Vehicles in Ecological Research?

by Caitlin Douglas,

Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPVs) are fixed or rotary winged aircraft operated without a pilot on board. There are three main types of RPVs: small-scale, tactical, and endurance RPVs which are able to operate at differing altitudes and ranges. Hardin and Hardin (2010) wrote in Geography Compass about the application of small-scale remotely piloted vehicles in environmental research.

Current applications include habitat/wildlife management and agricultural monitoring. Most uses involve taking aerial photography to monitor wildlife/vegetation populations and assess crop damage, but some applications involve biological sampling such as the collection of pollen and insects. Potential future uses include tasks that may be too dangerous for manned operations because the monitoring is taking place in hazardous areas. For example, a common problem with traditional aerial photography is cloud cover, and RPVs can be flown below the clouds.

Financial and technological hurdles prevent RPVs from being more widely adopted in ecological research; however, RPVs have been developed and successfully used at the Zoological Society of London.  A remotely operated ‘toy’ helicopter is flown through the ‘blows’ of whales to collect mucous and gas samples in order to study whale diseases. There appears to be a cautious but optimistic future for RPVs in ecological research.

Hardin, P. and Hardin, T. 2010. Small-Scale Remotely Piloted Vehicles in Environmental Research. Geography Compass, 4(9): 1297-1311.

The Institute of Zoology, 2008. Toy helicopter used to sample whale health. Zoological Society of London Website.

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