Droning On

hand-launch

Some longtime Readers might remember that Readings From The Northside was an early adopter of flying cameras; properly known as Unmanned Aircraft Systems, street name: drones. From the early DIY movement, to the first consumer offerings from Parrot and DJI, Readings From The Northside joyfully pursued the dream of pretending to be a bird and seeing the coast from a new perspective.

It was a thrilling and a frustrating time. Lots of trips to Radio Shack, waiting months for orders of minuscule parts from obscure Chinese suppliers, and many soldering iron burns. Then finally, when a new craft was all wired up and wriggled together, you’d have about five minutes of battery life to live that dream before something would go haywire, and you’d crash and burn all that time and money directly into the sea.

But it was always worth it. Because the quest was always about the unexplored, the untested, and the possibilities.

Consumer drones exploded into a global phenomenon rather quickly. The features, accuracy, and battery life of the technology was doubling almost every year, and soon DJI had a product which could be mass produced and flown by anyone, right out of the box, with almost no training. And so came a Christmas season where consumer drones were the coolest gift in town, and suddenly everyone was flying cameras and pretending to be birds.

And that’s when I realized that drones were really, really annoying.

Not mine, of course, but other peoples’.

I can remember a summer where you couldn’t go anywhere on the Island without hearing that irritating buzz of a consumer drone flying somewhere overhead. You could not invent a more annoying sound if you tried. Sitting in my beach chair, I would cast a weary eye skyward, squinting into the sun to see exactly where this irritant was coming from. Soon I’d grow tense; my blood pressure would rise, and I’d start to get nervous. Are they filming me? Do they know how to fly safely? What if the battery dies and it falls from the sky and hits someone?

Drones feel naturally predatory. There is not a creature on this planet interested in self preservation who does not get distracted and feel threatened by being droned. Save, of course, for the pilot.

Around this time the news cycle turned sour on drones too, switching from stories about the marvels of these micro electronic wonders and their possibilities, to stories about people doing really, really stupid things with them. Flying over airports, flying over cars, flying over wild animals, flying over their neighbors’ hot tubs. When I used to fly, my biggest distractions were the huge crowds that would gather around me. People were stunned by what they were seeing, and they had questions. This distraction and the resultant crashes became such a problem for me that my wife, and I’m not making this up, made me a bright orange safety vest with a huge, bold, Futura font on the back which read “CAUTION: PILOT IN FLIGHT.”

Yet in this new era, the biggest distraction for a pilot had become someone shooting their drone out of the sky with a shotgun, or physically assaulting them for “filming my kids.”

While it is currently fashionable to opine that the U.S. Government can’t get anything done any more, it actually moved swiftly and intelligently on the growing problem of irresponsibly annoying drone piloting. They laid down some ground rules and established a federal registry for all drones and pilots. This simple barrier to entry and system of accountability was enough to stop a significant number of careless pilots, and was enough to stop me too. I applauded and supported these efforts. I never registered, so surrendered my gear.

Soon all sorts of state, local, and private entities followed with their own drone laws and regulations. In the LBI region, for example, it is now illegal to fly almost everywhere. Barnegat Light, Holgate, Great Bay Boulevard, all of the Forsythe property along the bay; all totally illegal. You can’t even fly on the beach in Long Beach Township. It is even worse in Stafford Township where a mix of permissions exists, forcing pilots to always ask and get permission before flying anywhere. But this is all a good thing. Now all pilots have to stop, to think, to plan, to ask, and to wait before flying. And if they do something dumb, they can be held accountable. This is a much better system than trusting that every person with $400 to burn will consistently make good decisions.

Back in the day, when drones were untested motorized vehicles in the Wild West, the system was simple. If you flew for any commercial reason whatsoever, you need a pilot’s license from the FAA. Everyone else fell under the “hobbyist” rule. The hobbyist rule was simply that as long as you were not flying for commercial reasons, you could do whatever you wanted as long as you never flew above 400 feet. This was great for me, but unfortunate for the one group I really believed could benefit from cheap consumer drones: scientists and wildlife managers. This system shoved them clearly into the “commercial” category, so the whole space faced a formal FAA pilot’s license as a barrier to even just seeing what all the fuss was about and what the realistic potential might be.

osprey-drone

Now, scientists are humans like the rest of us and they suffer from occasional bouts of ignorance, bias, and closed mindedness on the one hand, and over-enthusiasm, carelessness, and dreamy optimism on the other. Scientists aren’t always scientific, especially about new things, and they are also usually guided by excessive caution. And so the debate about the potential for drone use in the wildlife community tended to be more based on rough speculation and unfounded opinions than on actual trials and testing; a problem made worse by the fact that only those scientists with the skill and license to fly a commercial airplane could test anything at all.

And so I took it upon myself back then to make a little scientific testing of drones and wildlife my “hobby,” and carefully shared stories of said hobby with some key biologists so they could be aware and give feedback on anything I was doing or discovering without roping them in commercially.

I focused on the two groups I clearly imagined the greatest benefit for: nesting osprey surveys, and nesting colony surveys on remote marsh islands. Surveying these animals during the nesting season was a critical task each season. But those surveys were costly, dangerous, and disturbing. For Osprey, we need to cruise all over the state, usually by boat, and throw a ladder up to every nest. For nesting colonies, a helicopter was required; and these helicopter surveys are in the the top 3 causes of death for wildlife biologists, not to mention how terrifying it is for the nesting birds. Yet it was clearly, wholly within the realm of possibility that these time consuming, costly, and incredibly disturbing (but necessary) activities could be done instead by an $800 consumer drone in half the time with zero risk or disturbance to any creature, biologist included. That possibility was amazing. It needed to be explored.

Here is what I learned.

Double Sticks Down

For anyone flying knowingly near any wild animal, you must be prepared to have your first instinct be “double sticks down.” This is the control maneuver which cuts the engine’s power and causes a drone to crash to earth. You must always consider the craft disposable, and dispose of it at the first hint of danger. The alternative is to consider the animal disposable. This is why I believe techniques should be developed using low cost consumer drones when possible.

Time & Distance

It became clear very quickly that disturbance needed to be tested as a function of both time and distance. At certain close distances from the target animal, it was instantly disturbed, and at further distances, they were never noticeably disturbed. But in between those extremes, the amount of time you spent hovering had a significant impact at a given height. As you might have guessed, shorter durations are always better, at any distance.

Spotters

Next, I learned that you absolutely need a second, even third person, to act as a spotter. You can’t fly safely around any animal (really anything) without a second set of eyes and a second brain undistracted by piloting. Non target animals can fly into the scene. Technical difficulties can overwhelm the pilot’s attention. And of course, a spotter has a different view, and sometimes a different opinion, of how any animal is reacting. Never fly solo around any animal, or area where there are wild animals, for any reason. Truly, flying drones for any reason should be a two-person task.

Common Sense

Regarding distance, it turned out to be mostly common sense, and nesting birds tend to react similarly to humans in terms of when they show signs of awareness and what type of reaction they have at certain distances. Once perceived, a drone is essentially a predatory irritant in the environment. How we react is based on just how much of a threat we perceive it to be, and that is partly influenced by how long the drone remains in a threatening position. A quick, non-stop flyover at a decent height catches our attention but soon vanishes. But a slowly descending drone directly over us will elevate our response to an eventual climax when we become angry, and usually violent. And importantly, you can’t always perceive the effect you are having on the target. I, for example, never look directly at a drone hovering over my family on the beach. I don’t want to be in the video!

Green Zone: 200 – 400 Feet

My actual results were that 200 feet to 400 feet is a safe zone. You can seemingly hover safely for up to three minutes at those distances without triggering any noticeable reaction. A little wind helps to muffle the sound of the drone.

Unfortunately, with current camera technology, that is much too far to see or observe anything useful.

Yellow Zone: 125 – 200 Feet

This is the sweet spot. Flights limited to 30 seconds in this range rarely, if ever, trigger any noticeable reaction. Closer to 125 feet, you just about have some usable visibility on ground targets. This is the range which requires the most study and for which all cameras should be optimized.

Red Zone: 75 – 125 Feet

This is the danger zone. In this range you might not get a noticeable reaction from an animal, but the risk of the animal being aware (and stressed) is high. This range should be avoided if possible, and hovering in this range is higher risk and should be severely limited.

The DON’T Zone

Never fly below 75 feet above anything which has not given you verbal or written consent, ever.

Hobbyist Conclusion

My final conclusion was that above 125 feet, you could do relatively safe surveying provided you moved quickly. Unfortunately, camera technology was not quite there yet for counting eggs in a nest bowl. My final call was that future success with drones used to survey nesting birds would be achieved the most quickly with better cameras.

Real Science

Since that time, numerous real scientific studies have been done on the reactions of wildlife to drones, many on wild birds. Some of the most interesting have been done on bears where they actually were able to monitor the heart rates of the bears while drones were flown overhead. What these studies importantly proved was that even when there was no noticeable response from the bears, their heart rates were sky rocketing while the drones were hovering above. The drones were annoying them, and causing significant stress, even though you could not see it. Fascinating, and useful stuff. There are other bear studies too where they demonstrated that bears will eventually become habituated to the drones and their stress responses to them will slowly decrease over time. But this takes a very long time.

The big problem with these studies is that in almost every single one of them, the researchers were flying way too close. All of them occur deep inside my  “DON’T ZONE.” In some of the bird studies, they were even hovering at just 13 feet above the birds. At those distances, they should be studying the pilot’s heart rate too!

In some of the bear heart rate studies, they were at a more respectable 65 feet, but that is still extremely close to the animal, still in the DON’T ZONE, and what’s worse, they were hovering there for five minutes. I had no doubt what the results of the study would show. I’m amazed those bears were not trying to swat the drones out of the sky. If a drone hovered for 5 minutes over your head on the beach at 65 feet, you’d be using your beach umbrella as a javelin!

Still, these studies have tremendous value. They demonstrate that the DON’T ZONE is real, and also that it is real even if you can’t perceive it. This data is especially useful to share with hobbyists and wildlife photographers as they may assume that the animals are not perceptive enough to be aware of the drone and that because they don’t see a reaction, they are not disturbing the animal. Wildlife photographers are already susceptible to mentally discounting animal’s signaling disturbance because it is a requirement of photography to get as close as possible. This is especially problematic for drone photography as you are generally watching the animal at a small size on a very poor screen. And drone cameras are ultra-wide angle, so you generally need to get much, much closer than you should to get any kind of photographic detail of an animal.

So what we have is clear science that demonstrates why you should never fly below 100 feet or so around animals, and also that doing so causes a severe stress reaction even if it looks like the animal is unaware. Common sense has been confirmed.

But we need more. Obviously, because of the lack of similar studies about the effect of flying drones at more reasonable distances above 125 feet, anyone with common sense who cares about animals will avoid flying around them at all, without really good reason, until similar stress response studies can be done at those greater distances.  It might one day be clearly proven that some species indeed show no measurable response (which is my instinct) at distances over 150 feet and that would create a whole new world of extremely safe wildlife photography and observation for properly permitted hobbyists. But until that day, with a lack of science, the wise and compassionate thing to do is to simply avoid flying around animals out of respect.

The Great News For Biology

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No eggs, but also no disturbance

All those years ago, I was inspired by the potential. I experimented, and concluded for myself that we’d just have to wait a bit longer. Technology needed to improve just a little bit. The problem was never really “how close can we get to wild animals with a drone” but “how far away can we stay and still get results?” We basically needed higher resolution cameras.

I believe we have finally reached the point, both technologically and culturally, where we should re-evaluate the use of drones in wildlife management and drive it forward. We have almost arrived. Yet I still encounter a lot of outdated arguments and perspectives on drones, fueled by the irresponsible usage during the “fad” phase of consumer drones, from before they were properly regulated. That era is gone. The game is now less about how to stop people from doing stupid things with drones, and advancing how we can use them to be less annoying to animals.

We have proven that drones cause stress to animals, even when it can’t be observed. While this is important, it must be weighed against the stresses and risks caused to those same animals when we climb a ladder up to their nests or fly a helicopter over their habitat. We don’t need to measure the heart rate of an Osprey flying around the nest and dive bombing the person on the ladder to know that the animal is more stressed, and the nest at more at risk, than it would be with a quick drone flight!

And perhaps best of all, the modern, 20 megapixel flyable cameras are capable of seeing eggs and measuring productivity easily inside the “Red Zone” and even in certain conditions above 125 feet. At these levels, we are looking at extremely low stress levels for extremely short durations. There is no comparison.

We’re super fortunate to have our own Osprey Hero, Ben Wurst, and the NJ Osprey Project boldly forwarding these techniques with extreme caution, diligence, science, enthusiasm, and common sense. It is astounding how much more (keyword: more) safely, quickly, and cheaply we can survey Osprey productivity with a consumer drone than with a ladder. I’m always happy to volunteer as Ben’s spotter on these missions!

I never thought I’d be saying this, but drones are, almost, not annoying at all anymore.

I encourage scientists to do more heart rate studies on nesting birds with the drone in the 125-200 foot range, and technologists to develop camera tech which can enhance image quality at those distances. I believe it will be proven to be the sweet spot.