Drones, an unexpected tool in the climate change fight

Deforestation of unprotected rainforests is responsible for more than 15 percent of net global carbon emissions (comparable to the world’s entire transportation sector). It is clear that new and expanded protection of rainforests are vital for endangered species, indigenous communities and our planet. 

And even though many of the world’s protected areas face potential threats, evidence tells us that if these areas were not declared protected, then they would be far worse off and likely already totally destroyed! So Rainforest Trust recognizes how important it is to provide long-term, effective management of established protected areas. 

There are numerous aspects to proper protected area management, including the necessity to monitor forest cover to ensure protective efforts are working. Since our parks and reserves usually cover large swaths of land with varying terrains, this makes the work of our partners’ patrols and rangers quite arduous. Luckily, technology is rapidly catching up with the problem, and new resources are becoming available that allow for more effective monitoring. 

Drones are one example. They give an aerial perspective that could previously only be achieved with helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, which are prohibitively expensive under many circumstances. The imagery a drone produces is more detailed and timely than what can be provided by satellites. Furthermore, it increases the amount of the protected area under more constant and consistent monitoring. 

These capabilities allow enhanced forest monitoring that can have a significant impact on sustainable, protected area management. With drones, a patrol team can detect criminal activity such as illegal logging or poaching happening in real-time, and produce high quality, time-stamped images for evidence in future legal proceedings. These tools also help the teams identify where to focus their foot patrols, improving targeted efforts to halt deforestation. 

Drones help produce detailed maps of protected areas and can aid in identifying the best locations for trails or park infrastructure, limiting the footprint of park development. They can also help identify new areas important for protection, and monitor and track species in and around protected areas to help identify migrant routes, nesting locations and other vital habitats.

But this is not all they can do. Drones are also playing an integral role in improving environmental communications and education, both vital aspects of conservation fundraising efforts, a necessity for organizations such as ours working in protected area establishment. Engaging with local communities through drones helps expand their perspective as well, providing new insights into both the land they call home and the need to conserve it. And the ability to produce iconic images of remote landscapes and species does wonders for raising awareness!

With all of the already discovered ways to improve conservation with drones, Rainforest Trust believes that we can make a significant difference in reducing carbon emissions, particularly in areas where logging is an ongoing threat. Rainforest Trust and our partners have found that drones can be an invaluable tool to help us ensure that protected areas stay protected. As the technology continues to improve, and the cost goes down, we will keep searching for additional ways to use these devices that have already helped us achieve so much more than traditional conservation approaches. We hope their use becomes ubiquitous, playing an increasingly larger role in the fight against deforestation, degradation and climate change.