How Drones Could Be Used In Wildlife Capture, Wildlife Research, And Conservation Medicine

Ellen Rogers, DVM

When I worked in wildlife conservation in Africa, a large part of the job involved wildlife capture for management and research purposes.  This involved darting single animals or catching entire herds of animals. Recent advances in drones (UAVs – Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) could change these types of wildlife capture for to make them safer for both animals and humans.

Drones for Mass Capture

Drones already on the market could be used in what’s known as a “mass capture” where large numbers of animals are caught.  In this form of capture, the team builds a non-permanent corral known as a “boma” and animals are funneled by helicopter into waiting trucks.

The helicopter pilots I worked with in the field were very, very good at what they did, finding animals, herding animals toward the boma, keeping the animals together when they did their best to scatter, not letting the animals getting too stressed or overheated, and avoiding running animals over dangerous terrain.  However, helicopters are very expensive by the hour and can be quite dangerous for the pilot flying at very low altitudes, trees and overhead power lines being two potentially deadly obstacles.  Each of pilots I knew had had at least one accident, often totally destroying the helicopter.  And all of them knew unfortunate pilots who had NOT walked away from crashes.

The use of loud drones could replace the helicopter to herd the animals into the boma, producing a huge savings in terms of costs and safety through reduced helicopter flight time.  Drones are controlled by pilots (operators) safely on the ground.  With their comparatively low cost, multiple drones flown by multiple pilots could be used to control the herd from several points.  This would prevent the need for the main driver to quickly change direction to herd stragglers and then race back to the main herd as helicopters must do now.  This would allow for slower movement toward the boma, thus stressing the animals less, increasing safety.

The US Military is currently working on “flocks” of drones that can work in concert, independent of the ground operators once a target object is identified and the desired procedure coded into the main controls.  Once perfected, this type of arrangement could be adapted to mass capture operations.

Drones Use For Individual Animal: Capture Or Taking Biological Samples

It is only when animals are heavily sedated or asleep that it is safe to approach them and take blood samples, radio collar, check for disease, medically treat, or move to a transport vehicle.

To capture individual animals, most wildlife capture teams dart selected animals with powerful anesthetics causing the animal to become unconscious. Darting can be done on foot, but is generally done from a helicopter with all the inherent dangers of helicopter flight.  The process of darting has a number of safety concerns for both humans and animals.  First, the drugs used are highly dangerous to humans if accidentally injected or aerosolized.  Second, the high velocity dart must be accurately aimed to hit large muscle masses or the dart could cause significant damage to an animal.  A misplaced dart can result in the animal’s death by hitting the head or other vulnerable places. Third, darts are built to inject the drugs very quickly which can cause significant tissue damage.  Wounds at the injection site can lead to infections that can become generalized.  Finally, the anesthetic drugs need time to take effect during which the animal can run long distances.  As the animal runs, the drugs affect its cognition, decreasing the animal’s natural ability to avoid obstacles, therefore increasing the possibility of injury.   The helicopter pilot’s job at that point is to herd the animal toward the ground crew while steering it away from dangerous terrain.  This is not always possible as the animal becomes more and more affected, possibly ignore environmental dangers.  As a result, animals can fall into ravines or water with injury or death as possible consequences.

Drones could change all this by making it possible to avoid darting all together.  Larger drones with long flight times could locate the desired animal.  Once located and still near the animal, but not close enough to disturb it, the drone could release its payload of a much smaller, very quiet drone with clawed legs that would allow it to crawl if needed, much like a vampire bat.  Released close enough for the smaller drone to reach the animal, the small microdrone would fly very close to the ground to avoid being seen.  At the target animal, the drone would land on the animal itself, again without disturbing it.  Once perched on the animal using its claws that resemble the claws of an oxpecker (small birds with sharp claws which cling to larger animals to eat the tick off the animals), the drone could do several things:

Gently inject anesthetic drugs which will allow the animal to fall into unconsciousness without the stress of being chased by a helicopter. The GPS device on the drone will signal to the ground crew where to find the animal and indicate when the animal was down and safe to approach.

Drones could eliminate the need for drugging the animal all together. Possible procedures the drone could do without anesthesia:

  1. Take a tissue biopsy with a needle attached to its underside
  2. Crawl to a vein to take a blood sample
  3. Inject medication
  4. Glue a tracking devise or biological monitoring sensor to the animal’s fur for short term monitoring
  5. The drone itself could remain with the animal for a period of time to give visual data about the animal’s movements and behavior. This may necessitate a solar panel on the drone to maintain its battery power.

All of these imagined drone uses are well within current drone technological capabilities.  I hope to work with an interdisciplinary team of engineers and wildlife capture personnel to devise the right combination of drones, controls, and auxiliary technology.  Field testing could be done on captive animals in zoos or similar settings before attempting these procedures on free-range animals.  The results could allow greater access to wildlife for monitoring and management while increasing safety of the animals and humans involved.

Copyright Ellen Rogers, DVM, 2017.  All rights reserved.