Up, up and away: AUT's Dr Barbara Bollard-Breen drones on (in a good way)

When traditional technology was no longer able to answer the conservation questions AUT’s Dr Barbara Bollard-Breen was asking, she found a solution in drones. And other industries are seeing the potential too. Erin McKenzie investigates the benefits of having eyes in the sky.

Talk to any researcher and they will likely use the word ‘exciting’ to explain their findings, and it’s no different when talking to AUT’s Dr Barbara Bollard-Breen. But, her use of the word, in every other sentence, is as much about the methods she is using as the information she is discovering.

Bollard-Breen is a senior lecturer at AUT’s School of Science and the leader of the AUT Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) team, which, as part of the Institute for Applied Ecology NZ at AUT, specialises in unmanned aerial low altitude sensing and geospatial analysis. 

Flying drones, the team maps habitats and landscapes, monitors wildlife behaviour and examines human impact on the environment – all without leaving their own impact.

They are leading the way in conservation and human impact research and Bollard-Breen has passport stamps from Antarctica, Namibia, Australia and Tonga to prove it.

Flying high

Bollard-Breen describes the use of drones in conservation and ecological research as a game changer.

“About five years ago, I realised I needed something else to do what I was doing," she says. “I used satellite imagery so that means cameras up in space beaming down and taking images. But one problem we’ve got in New Zealand is there’s so much cloud. It’s Aotearoa. We are the land of the long white cloud, so it’s really difficult to use satellite imagery here.”

When passing through the atmosphere there is interference, meaning corrections need to be made. Drones eliminate that need. They also provide major quality, accuracy and efficiency gains.

Bollard-Breen says satellites were no longer good enough for the questions being asked and the cost to get better resolution from them is “astronomical”. Where satellites offer half a metre resolution, or up to 10cm for some, drones offer photographs with a resolution of 1cm or sometimes 0.5cm. 

Not only is the quality better, drones are more efficient as the data can be collected more quickly. In a day, the AUT UAV team can map 100 hectares, using the drones like lawn mowers, going back and forward, until the entire area has been covered. The thousands of images are then stitched together to create high-resolution maps. On foot, the same area could take a month. And in the last year, they have collected more data than what most people would collect in a whole career.

The AUT team in Antarctica

Data, data everywhere

In good Kiwi fashion, Bollard-Breen and the AUT UAV team have been the first to use drones in this way in the ecology and conservation field.

Four years ago, she went to a conservation and geographic information science conference in the US to see who else was using drones. What she didn’t expect to find was that people were following her and the team. She credits this to having a relationship with New Zealand’s Civil Aviation Authority and being open to finding ways to make civil aviation regulations work for researchers.

However, the team is currently facing the issue of ‘big data’ due to the drones’ ability to collect so much, so quickly. It’s a megatrend facing industries around the word and many are seeking an answer to how to deal with all the data, how to analyse it, and how to do it all in real time.

Working to solve that problem for the team is a group of computer programmers. They’re not the typical members of a conservation and ecological research team, but Bollard-Breen is excited to be working with them. There is also an engineer who is responsible for building drones that are right for the job.

“I’m not a technology person, I’m an ecologist,” she says. “So it’s been really cool to work with engineers and developers and computer programmers to just come up with some new solutions.”

The AUT UAV team now owns a swarm of drones, including many multirotor and fixed wing UAVs, which are used as complementary tools. Satellite imagery provides an overarching view, before the drones are used to home in on particular areas of interest and gather more detailed images.

More than maps

As well as creating maps of a higher resolution, the team is working with a company in Switzerland to create three-dimensional mosaic landscapes that are translated into virtual reality (VR) and can be interacted with via a headset.

The team will soon be working with Indigenous Australian communities to map their native title lands and build a catalogue of sacred sites. Not only will they be mapping and documenting the sites, they will be turning the images into a virtual reality experience.

“Drones can be a really empowering tool,” she says. “They’re enabling them to use technology to tell their story and help protect their lands.” 

Most of the projects the team works on get turned into VR experiences, as it gives them an insight into parameters that they would never have noticed before.

Bollard-Breen says by being able to view areas in 3D, they are able to look at the relationship between where things grow and how they grow. It can be visualised in a way satellites would never have allowed.

The VR experiences are also shared with the public. 

“What that means for me as a scientist is it allows us to share these environments that are so inaccessible and so remote. Using our 3D models, anyone can have a look and that to me is quite exciting. It’s a neat way of bringing science to the forefront and bringing it to everyone.”

Some of those environments include special protected areas in Antarctica. Earlier this year, Bollard-Breen led an expedition to Antarctica, where she worked on a project funded by the New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute. The team used drones to map parts of  the Ross Sea region to understand human impacts and provide solutions that would help conserve Antarctic landforms at risk from climate change.

There are limited resources to monitor the past and cumulative effects of humans, but drones proved successful at working in conditions that are so different, cold and extreme.

They were able to see the footprint of camping sites and walking trails, some of which are several years old, and find artifacts from sites that date back to 1911 – all while creating high-resolution baseline maps of the areas from the thousands of images captured by the drones.

By visualising the maps in 3D, people can then put on the VR goggles, walk around the dry valleys and experience the unique Antarctic landscape.

Going from cold to hot conditions, Bollard-Breen and the team have recently returned from Namibia where they worked on a project to map threatened desert ecosystems.

In a partnership with the University of Pretoria, they flew drones over fairy circles, areas where desert grass grows to form circle shapes on the earth, and used thermal camera remote sensing to investigate the hydrological properties in an effort to explain the phenomenon.

Dr Barbara Bollard-Breen checking a drone's sensors prior to launch

Into the wild

Just as drones can monitor landscapes and human impact, they’ve also allowed the AUT UAV team the opportunity to monitor wildlife behaviour and do population counts in new ways.

Although Bollard-Breen emphasises the ability of drones to leave no footprint on the environment they are mapping or monitoring, the use of drones as a tool for wildlife monitoring has raised concerns about the potential harassment of the targeted species.  

For the AUT UAV team, it’s important they don’t cause the kind of disturbances to the animals that do occur when animals are studied on foot or by boat.

“It’s one thing to embrace it and say ‘yeah, go out and do it’,” she says. “But it’s important, particularly if you are studying wildlife, to do this ethically and safely. This is a big focus for me and my team.”

Closer to home, the team has been working to investigate if drones have an impact on bottlenose dolphins.

At Great Barrier Island, drones are being flown at different altitudes while the noise spectrum at water level is recorded. So far they have found the dolphins are not disturbed by the drones and showed no signs of noticing those flying 40 metres above them.

Research like this will help to define recommendations for best practice in the use of drones for marine mammal research and, so far, Bollard-Breen says for the species they have studied, drones have been a big improvement on traditional methods.

While carrying out the research, the AUT UAV team has worked with the Department of Conservation and its marine technical advisor Andrew Baxter says the development of drones has largely outpaced research on their impacts. There are very few studies internationally that have looked into this matter and DOC welcomes this work from AUT.

“[Drones] offer a new perspective for such research – an aerial view of marine mammal behaviours that someone on a boat would not be able to see easily,” Baxter says. “They also have advantages over traditional aircraft (fixed-wing and helicopters) and marine vessels, including their comparatively low cost and much-reduced noise levels, particularly underwater.”

While he says drones operated from a vessel positioned well away from the target animal offer a number of advantages for marine wildlife research, Baxter also points out some possible impacts that need to be considered.

Nesting birds, for example, may mistake a drone overhead as a predatory bird and there is the possibility of disturbance or direct injury to wildlife from a drone crashing due to pilot error or mechanical malfunction.

Bollard-Breen echoes Baxter’s sentiments, highlighting the need to take precautions and  operate with extreme care when flying around wildlife. An executive committee member of UAVNZ, she champions the safe use of drones and insists all drone operators on her team are certified drone pilots.

Lift-off in Antarctica

Flights of fancy

Outside of the ecology and conservation field, the AUT UAV team has been approached by many different industries that want to use drones to improve practices.

Working in partnership with Massey University and Lincoln University, the team is looking at ways the technology can be used in the agricultural industry.

The drones are being used to look at the health of plants and diseases, monitor crop growth and determine the effects of infestations of weed plants. Bollard-Breen says work of this kind has huge implications for New Zealand, given it is such an agricultural country.

Bollard-Breenn says companies have also shown interest in using drones to inspect cellphone towers and the top of buildings. She says a lot of this work has huge health and safety risks when done traditionally, and using drones eliminates that risk to human life. 

Drones can be used in almost any industry, she says. 

“It’s so exciting!”

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