The Benefits and Hurdles of Using Drones for Conservation Surveillance

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Drone technology has a myriad of conservation and environmental-protection applications. Drones offer quick, easy and cost-effective aerial imaging as well as sensor and monitoring capabilities. Unlike traditional surveying techniques, drones do not require substantial manpower, and can overcome common access issues (e.g., impenetrable vegetation, boulders, crevasses). With these benefits, more and more drones are being used for forest health monitoring, forest inventory, wildlife surveys, anti-poaching activities, reforestation, compliance monitoring, and air-quality monitoring.

Specifically, the Indonesian Tax Office uses drones to survey palm-oil plantations and track owners who misrepresent the actual size of their plantation. The World Wildlife Fund uses drones to monitor illicit trade in Africa. Brazil’s Sao Paulo Environmental Police use drones to monitor deforestation and illegal mining operations. Drones are even being used for surveillance of the emerging carbon-trade agreements in the recent Paris accord, where compliance is driven by the carbon value of standing forests.

While these uses will certainly increase, and greatly benefit the environment around us, there are still privacy and regulatory concerns surrounding the use of drones. While the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued Part 107 rules for drone operation, the rules do not address privacy, nor do they address issues of constitutional concerns and property rights in the area of environmental monitoring. And it is estimated that by 2030, there will be over 30,000 drones hovering in the U.S. skies alone. Certainly regulations will change and evolve as drone technology advances, and drones will become an even more valuable tool for both environmental-compliance issues and environmental conservation.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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