BOULDER, Colo. (CBS4) – Drones often conjure images of military operations, Amazon delivery or a careless neighbor. But what if they could help preserve the wild lands and animals of America?

At The Nature Conservancy in Colorado, a tech guru and wildlife scientist have teamed up in the name of efficiency and given drones a commendable purpose.

Gustavo Lozada is the expert behind the technology, with dreams of one day using drones to map endangered black footed ferrets underground, and Chris Pague is the excited biologist who sees endless possibilities for using drones in the study of the natural world.

As with many environmental organizations, The Nature Conservancy began trying to save land as development expanded. Resources and species needed to be preserved, and The Conservancy stepped in. More recently, a holistic view has become the standard as officials recognize that more than just land protection is needed for true conservation.

Three drones belonging to The Nature Conservancy Colorado (credit: CBS)

Three drones belonging to The Nature Conservancy Colorado (credit: CBS)

The Conservancy in Colorado – which turns 50 this year – studies grasslands, forest management, the impact of urban centers, and education initiatives that work to bring people back to nature. This includes getting a count on a bison herd, monitoring an endangered species of flowering plant, checking on water tables, and bringing nature to those who can’t go themselves.

Enter: drones. The small but powerful flying machines can be much more effective than humans for these kinds of projects.

“It would take me weeks and weeks to hike all these canyons,” Pague says in reference to The Conservancy’s land in southern Colorado. A drone, however, can shrink the work to an hour and easily get a visual on the water tables of the arid region.

Equipped with a high resolution camera, infrared sensors, and GPS, drones can also be programmed to run automatically and operate without human control.

(credit: The Nature Conservancy in Colorado)

The Conservancy has already used their drones to access Native American sites in rugged terrain and view ancient cave dwellings while also protecting their location; detect differences in soil health and fire damage using near-infrared; and identify new growth after a Cottonwood die-off due to drought. Information that was previously difficult to gather is now accessible in minutes with the use of a drone.

The resolution of the drone cameras varies with altitude, but the clarity can be so great that an image of a grassland can be zoomed in to identify the individual species of plants. In this way, work is reduced for scientists, as is their carbon footprint.

Pague notes that drones are not replacing scientists, but are making their work more efficient. Instead of spending the resources – time, money, manpower, gasoline – on a field study, a drone can fly over a bison herd or a burned forest and the high resolution images can then be studied by an expert.

An interesting and largely unknown factor, which will be monitored as time goes on, is the impact drones have on wildlife. If a person walks through an area, wildlife runs. But what happens when a drone – which coincidentally sounds like a swarm of bees – flies above?

(credit: The Nature Conservancy in Colorado)

The Conservancy’s pre-flight checklist, which includes a set of regulations intentionally stricter than the FAA’s, requires the operator to check for wildlife and sensitive animals. Lozada said he has had to postpone a flight considering the presence of an eagle’s nest.

Pague says coyotes will be afraid because they are accustomed to being chased by planes, but their pray of jackrabbits would not run.

Unexpectedly, bison run in the presence of a drone. Although not fully understood why, Pague says it’s something they have to be mindful of.

“A lot of these animals will get accustomed to it,” he says.

As will scientists. The Colorado and California branches of The Nature Conservancy are leading the way in drones for conservation, but they’ve also been used in Hawaii for volcano research and in the Caribbean to study coral reefs.

It’s a matter of asking scientific questions and using drones to help find the answer. In the past, drones have been used in science for a singular project. Now that the technology is here, Pague says it’s time to ask how drones can be used in their everyday work — from science to outreach to conservation.

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