May 21 - A new aerial surveillance system to protect forests and endangered species in remote parts of the world is being pioneered by a pair of ecologists in Switzerland. The researchers have designed and built their own flying drone that can capture evidence of illegal activity on film. Jim Drury reports.
NATSOT: DRONE TAKING OFF More sophisticated and less expensive than ever before, aerial surveillance drones are now going where none have gone before. This one is being deployed by Swiss scientists to help in the fight against illegal logging and hunting in remote rainforests. Developed and built by ecologists Lian Pin Koh and Serge Wich of Zurich University, the craft can rise 250 metres from the ground and cover an area of 100 hectares. With a simple video camera attached, it's ideal for monitoring illegal activity above inaccessible and dangerous regions. Koh says they have already used the drone in Indonesia. . SOUNDBITE (English) ECOLOGIST AND DRONE INVENTOR, LIAN PIN KOH, SAYING: "The main initial idea was to use this drone to take videos and photographs of these orangutans from the air so that we can better monitor and survey their populations in the wild....We were able to see evidence of logging of forests in Sumatra, rainforests. We could also see expansions of agricultural plantations, which is a major threat to the remaining primary forests in many parts of the tropics" The plane can fly for 45 minutes, travelling at almost 40 feet per second. It's powered by lithium batteries similar to those used in cell phones. An open source based computer system controls its flight. Koh and Wich built the craft themselves, using parts ordered on the internet from China and the US. It cost 2,000 dollars, five times less than similar pilotless crafts. The ecologists hope they can encourage other conservationists to make their own models. SOUNDBITE (English) ECOLOGIST AND DRONE INVENTOR, LIAN PIN KOH, SAYING: "Of course we need a lot of help and collaboration with local departments, local forestry departments and agricultural departments, with local NGO's and so on, but I hope by making this technology so affordable for many of these developing country workers, we can take a big step towards solving many of these problems." Koh and his partner are working on testing an infrared camera which will enable them to fly the drone at night when most illegal activity is thought to take place. Flights are set for launching in Malaysia and Borneo before the pair release instructions on how to build and use the drone online. Their hope....that by taking their conservation fight to the skies, environmental criminals around the world can be brought to ground. Jim Drury, Reuters