on September 22nd, 2021

World Animal Day is a global event celebrated each year on the 4th of October and it works to address localized issues surrounding animal welfare.

According to www.worldanimalday.org.uk, World Animal Day is a social movement that aims to raise the status of animals through the actions of individuals, businesses, and policies of nations.

Photo by Kevin Mueller on Unsplash

Over the years World Animal Day estimates that there are around 1,000 events hosted annually around the globe. In the age of social media #WorldAnimalDay is often a trending topic and in 2019 it reached the Top 10 list of trends.

In total 75 countries are backed by the official World Animal Day organization with more than 90 ambassadors from these countries. Ambassadors are sometimes community leaders working in respective fields of animal welfare – and most importantly it reaches under 40 million people through all their campaigns.

When you consider all these aspects of World Animal Day, the question arises, how can engineers make a difference?

One of the answers seems to lie in drones. From modified off-the-shelf flying machines to well-researched projects, drones are vital for animal protection and it is one of the ways engineers have entered the animal welfare arena, with the flag of technology flying high.

Why Drones?

According to one study, Conservation Drones for Animal Monitoring, unmanned aerial vehicles have been part of conservation for a few years as a means to gather data in biodomes. Aerial vantages and a selection of cameras and apps mean that drones can provide a lot of information at a low cost.

While drones are relatively new in the nature conservation field, there are also different types of drones – and each has a use when it comes to conservation practices according to Conservation Drones for Animal Monitoring.

Four generic drones have specific classifications, and these drones, due to higher availability are most likely to be used in data gathering when it comes to animal welfare.

Photo by Karl Greif on Unsplash

The drones are:

  1. Glider drones: These drones can fly extreme distances in low and high-altitude conditions, and are exceptionally useful for visual feedback, deploying other drones or devices, or completing more repetitive tasks like continued fly-overs.
  2. Floating drones: A float drone stays put in one area, or moves slowly through an area. They are used for creating communication networks, offering visual feedback, or often cooperates with other drones to address conservation needs.
  1. Carrier drones: As the name implies these are workhorses aimed at carrying items too hard to reach places – but they can usually only travel short distances.
  1. Bug drones: These are small data drones, that can easily zip around due to their lightweight.

Drones most useful in nature conservation projects are often glider and carrier drones.

Because glider drones can cover large areas and be equipped with the likes of cameras they have massive potential to reach the biggest areas. Carrier drones in contrast offer the drone operator a lot of control thanks to vertical take-off, which means it’s possible to position cameras to the optimal angle and of course carry items.

What makes these drones especially great is that they are easy to modify or convert, and importantly they are affordable. They can also easily be equipped with open-source pilot systems, which means they can be programmed with GPS waypoints. This means the entire flight plan can be preplanned, which also gives better control over data.

How Can Engineers Help?

Using drones for a myriad of conservation projects does not have to be costly, and engineers can help turn off-the-shelf consumer-grade drones into aerial beasts to access and understand animal migration patterns, density and even track animal poachers.

Help track, count, and locate animals and wildlife

Drones have delivered great automation within the field of animal monitoring. Traditionally monitoring happened on foot, in fuel-powered vehicles, or manned aircraft. Nowadays drones offer quicker results and make the process a lot cheaper. This means funding allocation can be moved to other areas of conservation when labor-intensive monitoring is trimmed down.

The study, Assessing climate change associated sea-level rise impacts on sea turtle nesting beaches using drones, photogrammetry and a novel GPS, investigate automated monitoring of species distribution for nature conservation using all the bells and whistles that come with drones dedicated to the task.

Photo by Josué Soto on Unsplash

The study combined a Digital Terrain Model with 5 years of nest survey data of sea turtles. The data could show the regions with high nesting density, various species of turtles that nested there.

A photogrammetry workflow was then created by using a custom-made quadcopter drone equipped with a small digital camera with a 12-megapixel image sensor that collected birds-eye view photos of nesting beaches.

For research purposes, the drone was piloted in an automated survey mode, which allowed it to follow GPS waypoints, pre-programmed paths. Researchers used open-source Pixhawk autopilot software.

This eradicated human piloting errors and achieved a high ratio of aerial images to create an accurate Digital Terrain Model.

It was able to give much information on these turtles as they emerge from the eggs, their habitat and could give location-based data that would have been hard to gain on-foot.

Drones can tell stories

Kenya’s Masai Mara comes alive annually during the great migration, but in 2016 a film crew was able to use equipment like drones to finally capture the mass movement in VR offering a never-before-seen telling of one of Africa’s greatest annual occurrences.

Exodus: The Great Migration was the first VR film to capture a unique angle on natural phenomena. It was also the first self-funded short film of its kind, made by Habitat XR.

What sets it apart is the fact that when it was filmed in 2016, commercial VR filming technologies were still in their infancy, and the crew had to jimmy and rig drones, stands, and all sorts of equipment to capture a rare glimpse into Africa.

Upon filming, animals were scared of the equipment, and it gave a hard lesson to the grew on ways to capture this kind of footage.

But it’s the crew’s home-rigged filming equipment to capture something profound that led to its mini-documentary Made in the Mara (where viewers can watch drones get obliterated in troubleshooting mode).

Viewers also get to see the impactful nature of drones when it comes to wildlife documentary filmmaking, its relevance, and why it is important.

Since Exodus: The Great Migration Habitat XR has been able to produce several VR experiences that would be unthinkable without the use of drones.

The rules of the skies

The World Wildlife Fund has compiled a report on what the organization believes would be best practice when it comes to operating drones for nature conservation. The report includes examples of practical case studies from environmentalists and scientists.

The golden rules are:

  • When using drones adopt precaution at all times. There haven’t been many studies into animals’ sensitivity when it comes to drones, and care should be taken when it comes to sensitive habitats and endangered species.
  • Guidelines set by institutions come in handy for researchers, and as a result, the same rules apply when using drones.
  • When flying drones in other countries, parks, or areas, researchers should always be aware of any laws surrounding drones, and even get the permits they require to fly the machines in the first place.
  • The right drones should be used for the job. Noise, the machine being a target and other considerations needs to be made.
  • Drones should have minimal effect on wildlife disturbances, and the flight path, take-off, and landing should not disturb animals.
  • Always ensure there is no distress from animals when the drone is in use.
  • Always use drone data to accurately report findings, and assist others in maintaining good practice by sharing tips and tricks on how to effectively use drones with minimal disturbance.

Perhaps this World Animal Day, go fly a drone.


World Animal Day, 2019. Facts. [online]. Available at: https://www.worldanimalday.org.uk/media_centre [Accessed 20 September]

Verschoor, Camiel. (2016). Conservation Drones for Animal Monitoring. 10.13140/RG.2.1.3921.7681

Varela, Miguel & Patricio, Ana & Anderson, Karen & Broderick, Annette & DeBell, Leon & Hawkes, Lucy & Tilley, Dominic & Snape, Robin & Westoby, Matt & Godley, Brendan. (2018). Assessing climate change associated sea-level rise impacts on sea turtle nesting beaches using drones, photogrammetry, and a novel GPS system. Global Change Biology. 25. 10.1111/gcb.14526.

Duffy, J.P., Anderson, K., Shapiro, A.C., Spina Avino, F. L. DeBell & Glover-Kapfer, P. 2020. Drone Technologies for Conservation. WWF Conservation Technology Series 1(5). WWF.

The latest news

EIT News

EIT Launches a Food and Blanket Drive in South Africa 

As the chill of winter approaches, the Engineering Institute of Technology (EIT) South Africa office is gearing up for a meaningful initiative to support those in need.   EIT and the... Read more
EIT News

EIT Graduate Irvin Chikeya’s Story in the Community 

Driven by a keen desire to advance his engineering skills, Irvin Chikeya embarked on his Master of Engineering (Industrial Automation) degree with the Engineering Institute of Technology (EIT). As a... Read more
EIT News

Education Hubs – Part of EIT’s Global Expansion 

The Engineering Institute of Technology (EIT) has set its sights on global expansion, aiming to establish a stronger presence across continents. From its roots in Australia, venturing into the United States,... Read more
Engineering Institute of Technology