So You Want to Fly Drones for Conservation?

The latest in the Drones and Small Unmanned Aerial Systems Special Series, in which Kike profiles interesting information, research and thoughts on using drones, UAVs and remotely piloted vehicles for journalism and photography.

In the recent past, drones have exploded into the public eye. A subject of constant controversy, they summon debates about personal privacy, the dynamics of political conflict, and the dangers of the power they confer on the individuals who control them. But how about the ways drones can creatively contribute to society? For conservationists, drones can be a massive advantage. There’s nothing that can replace a good scientist, but with the help of drones soaring above and surveying terrain, researchers are empowered to carry out projects they’ve never imagined before. Many conservation projects take a fraction of the time and effort with drones, leaving scientists with more time to produce groundbreaking new work.

National Geographic Creative photographer Kike Calvo teaching the use of drone technology to Embera children in the remote region of Darien between Panama and Colombia.
National Geographic Creative photographer Kike Calvo teaching the use of drone technology to Embera children in the remote region of Darien between Panama and Colombia.

All around the world, drones are embarking into the field as research companions. A drone’s ability to fly low, maneuver well, and enter areas where aircraft cannot puts it in the perfect position to capture high-resolution terrain data. Whether it’s a field of icebergs or a rainforest canopy, drones are able to document material that would take days if not weeks or arduous work by hand.

At a time of increasing need for documentation of our precarious environment, drones present a powerful potential to aid humans. If you’re hoping to map terrain in the future, consider taking on a drone as your next research assistant – just make sure to prepare correctly! In my experience as a conservationist and drone photographer myself, I’ve seen the benefits of these machines firsthand. Entering such a new field may be intimidating, so I hope to help you understand the basics and potential benefits of drone equipment.

If you decide to use a drone, you might benefit from hiring an expert who can help you get started. Every environment is different, and you don’t want to end up with broken equipment. However, a baseline understanding of the practices of drone conservation will give you a framework upon which to begin.

Children holding a fixed-winged eBee drone in Dulag, Philippines. Photo © We Robotics

Much of the conservation research being done today requires analysis of resident populations of animals and plants. Drones can fly above bird nesting zones without causing a disturbance, for example, allowing ornithologists to count the animals. In Australia, Jarrod Hodgson and Rowan Clarke were able to monitor thousands of seabird nests from above, tracking changing populations. “Our research group investigates the use of low-cost drones to conduct population monitoring of breeding seabirds on remote islands with minimal disturbance,” said Hodgson.

Aerial imagery also allowed them to analyze photos in detail after the fact, unlike with ground tracking.  Although some difficulties like birds camouflaged into the landscape complicated the counting process, Clarke and Hodgson were able to accomplish their work with more efficiency than ever before. “We envisage such a technique will be a valuable research and management tool,” added Hodgson, pointing out their future plans to test drone monitoring with other kinds of animals.

Chernobyl-2 DUGA Radar. Photo © Philip Grossman
Chernobyl-2 DUGA Radar. Photo © Philip Grossman / Exploring the Zone

Drones can also be used to map cultural heritage sites, such as ancient Greek cities or the ruins of the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine. Sonja Betschart is the co-founder of We Robotics, and oversaw a recent drone project to map two ancient Greek sites in Ephesos, Turkey. “These data will be used to make precise measurements and modelling of site features, to plan future excavations, and to potentially reveal previously unseen archaeological features,” she explained. The drone work was able to capture sites of immense importance: “One of the mapping sites at Ephesos was area where Temple of Artemis, one of Seven Wonders of the ancient world, used to be. Its foundations could still be seen.”

Phil Grossman has been using drones to map a more recent ruin: the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown site in Ukraine. “The project started nearly 5 years ago primarily as a photo project,” he said. Since then, Grossman has been piloting drones through the abandoned area. Through abandoned neighborhoods and the power plant itself, he is able to capture haunting footage from above. He is working towards completing his own film, “Exploring the Zone: Chernobyl.” Grossman has now spent nearly 100 days working in the zone.

While flying, a drone can take pictures for straightforward diagrams, or it can produce sweeping video for use in documentaries. The projects in Ukraine and Turkey are only a few examples; in Israel, Colombia, the US, and beyond, ancient ruins have been mapped where no helicopter could have gone before, opening the door to unprecedented footage.

The Lost City in the mountains of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (Colombia) was declared Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1979. Photo Santiago Giraldo / Global Heritage Fund.
The Lost City in the mountains of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (Colombia) was declared Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1979. As Colombia’s tourism industry opens up, specialized companies like Colombia Photo Expeditions are now offering unique expeditions in this country. Photo © Santiago Giraldo / Global Heritage Fund Latin America.

In Colombia, the “lost city” of Teyuna has presented problems to researchers since it was rediscovered in 1974. Its precarious position on the steep and slippery slopes of the rainforest made some parts of it almost impossible to document. However, drones can bypass these obstacles with comparative ease. “Using a drone for stills and filming also gave us the possibility of seeing the site and its structures from new angles and perspectives,” explained Global Heritage Fund Latin America Director Santiago Giraldo. “The drone also provided spectacular footage of the site that is now in use by GHF and ICANH for educational and fundraising purposes.” It is interesting to remark that companies like Colombia Photo Expeditions are not only offering photography and birdwatching expeditions to Colombia, but also partnering with local researchers and scientists through On The Edge Sky Labs to work on conservation projects around the country using drone technology.

Wind, weather, and spotty GPS coverage can bring down a drone, but they continue to be used even in some of the remotest reaches of the world. Drones can even be used for humanitarian purposes; for example, in 2015 I was part of a multidisciplinary mapping effort using drones after Kathmandu’s earthquake in the town of Panga, Nepal. A drone flew over the town, photographing it from above. The documented area could then be analyzed for planning of new relief and building projects. If locals had had such a map before the quake, they could have planned search and rescue routes much more effectively. “We didn’t imagine the earthquake would happen like this,” said Community Disaster Management Committee volunteer Janak lal Maharjan. “Because of lack of good equipment we failed to save some lives.”


Proper drone usage requires many effective safety precautions. For example, you need to carry backup batteries, memory cards, and plan for a potential malfunction of technology. Rain and wind can defeat a drone, or it can get caught in a tree or another place you can’t reach. Some drones depend on GPS technology, which may malfunction in areas with spotty service. You should also try to keep track of your drone flights in order to maintain an organized practice. These and many other techniques are explained further in my recent book, Drones for Conservation – Field Guide for Photographers, Researchers, Conservationists and Archaeologists.

“Kike Calvo, a highly talented National Geographic Creative photographer and
conservationist, had the prescience to understand the potential of drones,” said  George Mason University Professor and National Geographic Conservation Fellow Thomas E. Lovejoy.  “And much as the photographer that he is likes to share his images, Kike as a conservationist, has generously created this book to share some early and great examples in which conservation has benefited from this 21st century emerging technology.”

“So Drones for Conservation is very much a first,” said Lovejoy. “With actual examples from around the world, it also has very practical sections on how to use drones effectively – as usual there is never a substitute for carefully thinking out a project in advance.

From urban problems to the wildest reaches of nature, drones can help their owners in ways conservationists couldn’t imagine only a few short years ago. Their size and maneuverability unlock an easier and often cheaper mode of documentation. Drone conservation is still in its infancy, so the possibilities for work in your area likely haven’t been explored – with a bit of training and expert help, you could find yourself embarking on your next expedition with a drone by your side.


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Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Award-winning photographer, journalist, and author Kike Calvo (pronounced key-keh) specializes in culture and environment. He has been on assignment in more than 90 countries, working on stories ranging from belugas in the Arctic to traditional Hmong costumes in Laos. Kike is pioneering in using small unmanned aerial systems to produce aerial photography as art, and as a tool for research and conservation. He is also known for his iconic photographic project, World of Dances, on the intersection of dance, nature, and architecture. His work has been published in National Geographic, New York Times, Time, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New York Magazine, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair, among others. Kike teaches photography workshops and has been a guest lecturer at leading institutions like the School of Visual Arts and Yale University. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic blog Voices. He has authored nine books, including Drones for Conservation; So You Want to Create Maps Using Drones?; Staten Island: A Visual Journey to the Lighthouse at the End of the World; and Habitats, with forewords by David Doubilet and Jean-Michel Cousteau. Kike’s images have been exhibited around the world, and are represented by the National Geographic Image Collection. Kike was born in Spain and is based in New York. When he is not on assignment, he is making gazpacho following his grandmother’s Andalusian recipe. You can travel to Colombia with Kike: