Use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles for Ecology

Drone-footage-of-St-Mary's-Hospital

Use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles for Ecology

In this, the first of a series of articles with regard to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones), BSG Ecology Partner Steve Betts outlines some of the opportunities for ecologists that they present, but also outlines regulatory requirements that need to be considered ahead of commercial use.

Technological advances

BSG Ecology is currently working with clients to develop applications for drones that will assist with the ecological assessment of sites. Drone technology has advanced considerably in recent years and the sophisticated equipment that is now available presents some interesting opportunities.

High quality (high resolution) aerial imagery has not, until recently, been readily available to ecologists, due to the requirement to use expensive specialist equipment and the high cost of commissioning aerial surveys to capture such images. However, technological advances mean that digital cameras have reduced in size without compromising quality, and these improvements have been incorporated into the latest generation of drones.  Whilst images available on the internet via sources such as Google Earth have some use, much higher resolution imagery can now be obtained relatively easily using drones.

High quality aerial images potentially offer a number of benefits to ecologists, particularly when assessing the ecological interest of sites, but in order to get the most from this technology it is important to appreciate its limitations as well as the opportunities that it presents. Most importantly there are restrictions on the use of drones that users need to be aware of, which means that you cannot simply buy a drone and use it for commercial purposes. Consideration also needs to be given to the resolution of the camera and hence the distance that the drone needs to be from the target to achieve the desired results.  If the objective is to use the drone to monitor animals, close proximity of the drone also potentially raises issues relating to their disturbance.

CAA Requirements

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which is the UK’s aviation regulator, has introduced regulations that require operators of small unmanned aircraft used for aerial work purposes and those equipped for data acquisition and/or surveillance, to obtain permission from the CAA before commencing a flight in certain situations. Permission needs to be obtained from the CAA if you plan to:

  • fly the aircraft on a commercial basis (i.e. conducting ‘aerial work’) or
  • fly a camera/surveillance fitted aircraft within congested areas or closer to people or properties (vehicles, vessels or structures) that are not under your control.

In order to grant a permission, the CAA requires proof of the pilot’s overall airmanship skills and awareness, as well as their ability to operate the aircraft safely. This is achieved by means of an independent assessment, which is carried out by a small number of CAA-recognised training providers.  The assessment comprises a ground theory course and examination, preparation of an operations manual and a practical airworthiness assessment that typically takes a number of weeks to complete.

Regulation

The CAA has successfully prosecuted at least one person for the unauthorised use of a drone and further prosecutions are likely to follow in light of increasing concerns about impacts on manned aircraft. Irresponsible use of drones may ultimately result in further regulation of their use, which would be an undesirable outcome given the potential ecological applications that this technology can be used for.  It is therefore important that ecologists only use drones once they have undergone the necessary training and in accordance with CAA guidance.

Application

Steve Betts, Partner, has successfully passed his pilot training and is now using a drone to investigate its application in ecology. Initial work has focussed on the use of the drone to help with the assessment of a former hospital building at St Mary’s Hospital, Stannington, near Morpeth, where access is limited as a result of the poor condition of the building.  The results so far have been very encouraging as the drone was used to investigate the roof, which otherwise would have required expensive scaffolding or a hydraulic lift to achieve the same result.

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