The Amazon Forest is being watched – Drones in action!


The Amazon Forest is under attack.  Illegal mining and forestry operations destroy thousands of acres of land a year.  A new weapon is being deployed, drones

NPR ran a great article on May 19th titled “Eyes In The Sky: Foam Drones Keep Watch On Rain Forest Trees“, focusing on the efforts by a group looking to protect the Amazon forest. The  (ACA) has partnered with Wake Forest University on a mission of drone-based monitoring using a clever design based upon innovation and passion.

The article from NPR noted:

These $5,000 toy planes have been modified so they have sophisticated autopilot functions. Unlike the helicopter drones that were popular gifts this past holiday season, Castaneda’s drones look more like plastic foam replicas of the Stealth bomber. The fuselage is V-shaped, with a single propeller protruding out the back. Each machine spans 3 feet wide and weighs less than 5 pounds.

“This is what’s called a flying wing design,” says Max Messinger, a biology graduate student from Wake Forest University, who is helping Castaneda set up the machines. “It doesn’t have a tail.”

We reached out to the ACA to ask a few questions and received responses from Max (who was quoted in the NPR article) and Miles Silman, an ACA board member who also oversees the UAV monitoring program as director of CEES at Wake Forest University.

Q. We read about your efforts on NPR and instantly knew we had to learn more. Could you briefly explain to our readers a bit about your mission in the Amazon Forest?

Our mission is to help prevent and reduce deforestation and other threats to our natural resources through the use of unmanned aircraft and other technologies. We work to put unmanned aircraft in the hands of local stakeholders (communities, researchers, non-governmental organizations, governments, forestry management organizations, etc) so that they can actively monitor and react to deforestation and other threats in near real-time.

The Wake Forest SUAS lab is also using drones to aid in forest management in the public and private sphere, as well as for basic science questions. For example, we’re using drones to measure the carbon content of forests for carbon conservation, and to monitor and evaluate the success of reforestation efforts on lands degraded by illegal gold mining.

Q. How did you decide to use foam to create the drones?

Foam is a really nice material for a number of reasons. First of all, it makes the airframes cheap, which is a must when flying high-risk missions where rough landings or worse can occur. In addition to the fact that it is obviously quite lightweight, it is also very easy to work with, so we can easily integrate a variety of sensors and systems into the airframe. And, while the foams (EPOR and EPP) are already quite strong, well-placed fiberglass and carbon fiber along with a plastic laminate covering make them very stiff and durable.

Q. According to the NPR article about your Amazon Forest work, these drones cost around $5,000, why create your own vs. buying drones from one of the larger manufacturers?

There are plenty of drone manufacturers out there, but we found that it was very hard to find aircraft which were exactly what we wanted. Aircraft which do fit the bill typically cost in the $10-20k range, which makes it hard for us or our partners to procure them.

At the end of the day we simply felt we could make something that suited our needs and the needs of our partners better, and is a whole lot cheaper.

Q. Are there challenges flying drones in the Peruvian Amazon Forest that are unique to that area?

The Amazon is definitely a challenging operating environment. The three big challenges which immediately come to mind are frequent rainfall, extreme remoteness, and difficulty in finding good landing site. Our planes can fly in light rain but this area averages over 1 meter of rainfall per year with a strong rainy season.

Remoteness makes everything harder. When the closest electronics store is a 5 hour boat-ride away and the closest place that sells things like LiPo batteries and servo motors is a multi-day journey by boat and plane away, needing a replacement part is quite a hassle.

Landing sites are really hard to find in most of the areas where we work as they are typically undisturbed rainforest with nothing bigger than small gaps no more than half an acre for kilometers around. We frequently have to transit through 5-10 km just to reach the area we want to image.  In fact, a 5 hr boat ride is often a best-case scenario. The rainfall at our sites ranges from 7 to 25 feet, so the that creates challenges as well. A lot of the operating space is vast, roadless wilderness.

Q. Have the drones caught any illegal activities in the Amazon Forest yet?

Active miningWe have been working with the drones in Peru for about a year and since then we have identified a number of illegal mine sites. Most of the mines are known as “informal”, as they are mines on public lands which are reserved for forestry or mining, but the miners do not have permits or leases to operate. The mines are all over the landscape, as there is essentially no law enforcement to speak of in these areas. We are working to monitor the spread of these mines and ensure that they do not cross into protected areas such as national parks and privately-owned conserved areas.

Q. Are there drone regulations in Peru that you had to navigate to get approval to use this approach?

Peru does have drone regulations but theirs are much less stringent than in the US. We had to acquire permits for the radio bands we use but are able to enjoy relatively unrestricted operations. There is essentially no non-commercial aviation in these areas, so unless we stray into class A airspace we are unlikely to see or hear another aircraft.

Q. Are you familiar with BioCarbon Engineering and their desire to plant 1 Billion trees a year?  Are there opportunities for partnerships between your efforts and theirs?

Reforesting our world is of critical importance, and technology like drones makes doing so on the necessary scale possible. The second step to that scheme is keeping those new forests in the ground, which is where we can come in. We are certainly interested in getting our aircraft out there to do that sort of monitoring.

Q. Were there any questions we should have asked you about that you would like our readers to be aware of about your Amazon Forest conservation and monitoring efforts?

Only an observation. I’ve been working in these forests for 25 years and we’ve always know that the action is in the canopy, while we’ve been working from the ground. It is just spectacular to be able to see these forests from above and to use drones to do science in the canopy. There are a million questions to ask, and we’re just getting started.


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