Using low-cost drones for MPA management in the Danajon Bank

by ZSL on

MSc student Beth Priday, tells us about her research project, where she explores the use of drones for conservation management in the Philippines:

I’ve recently completed my postgraduate degree with the University of Exeter (UK), in MSc Conservation and Biodiversity, for which I had the opportunity to work with ZSL’s Philippines team in exploring the use of low-cost drones for marine conservation management, as part of my thesis. Our field sites were two MPAs in the Danajon Bank which have the potential to benefit from a low-cost habitat surveying method.

Photo - Product photo of the DJI Mavic Pro - a quadcopter drone
DJI Mavic Pro Drone - the model of drone used for this project

As technology advances, more opportunities present themselves within low-cost conservation methods, making technology more accessible.

Despite low-cost drones’ ability to conduct environmental surveys with higher accuracy and efficiency than humans (albeit having some limitations related to environmental conditions/habitat types), their use within conservation is yet to take off.  This could be linked to a lack of accessible support to introduce and use low-cost drones in conservation management, we therefore hoped to address this as part of my research.

Photo - Aerial photo of a tropical coastline edged with reefs, taken from a drone.
Handumon Island's MPA within the Danajon Bank, Bohol

The Danajon Bank is one of six double barrier reefs in the world, making it a vital hotspot for biodiversity which the local environment, and human populations alike, depend on. Facing environmental threats such as unsustainable exploitation and climate change, ZSL is working in Danajon Bank to upgrade the Marine Protected Area (MPA) status of Handumon and Guindacpan Island to iMPA status.

Photo - A group of young children sat around a table outside, watching something on a laptop.
Involving local communities and governments helps eliminate privacy concerns

The ‘i’ of iMPA stands for ‘innovative’, ‘improved’, ‘ideal’ and ‘inclusion’. The community-run iMPAs will see an increase in the area of no-take zones throughout the coral reef, seagrass and mangrove habitats, accentuating the need for a low-cost and efficient methods of habitat surveying.

With this in mind, we explored how to use a low-cost drone to map coral reefs, seagrass beds, mangrove forests, seaweed farms and the whole iMPA by collecting a series of images to stitch together using photogrammetry software.

These were used to create high image quality maps, from which details can be drawn, such as habitat cover and health, and can also be used to compare the habitats over time.

We tested drone settings, flight methods and environmental conditions that would best suit the habitats within the proposed iMPAs of the Danajon Bank.

We were able to map coral reefs, seagrass beds, mangrove forests and seaweed farms. However we were unable to map the entire iMPA, due to the drone’s lack of battery life and speed to cover the full area.

Image - Screenshot of the photogrammetry software used to stitch images together.
Mangrove forest map creation within the photogrammetry software Agisoft Metashape: The blue rectangles represent the individual images captured by the drone that are ‘stitched’ together to make up the mangrove forest map beneath


Image - Composite of the stitched together photographs of a mangrove forest, with an enlarged section of vegetation pulled out.
Mangrove Forest Map (a) the level of detail visible from the map (b) within Guindacpan's proposed iMPA-Drone survey Time: 7min 11sec

Low-cost drones have the potential for many other applications within conservation, such as tracking wildlife, detecting poaching activity and DNA collection. They’re adaptable to conservation projects of all scales and their potential should be further explored to encourage their applicability to reduce increasing environmental threats!

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