Wildlife Drones: Using Innovative Technology to Track Elusive Species

Wildlife Drones, drones for wildlife conservationCompany uses drone technology to track animals in the wild

The third in a trilogy of articles on innovative drones for conservation.  Explore the first article, on drones saving island ecosystems here: and the second, on drones for whale research, here.  

By DRONELIFE Features Editor Jim Magill

Images courtesy Wildlife Drones.

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Dr. Debbie Saunders, Wildlife Drones

Dr. Debbie Saunders, an Australian wildlife researcher, had a problem.

“Most of my career has been focused on endangered species and, being able to protect the habitat of these species so that they continue to survive,” she said in an interview. “I was working on small migratory birds and they can only be tracked using tiny tags and everyone who had tried to track them had failed.”

Researchers, like Saunders who were studying species such as the Swift Parrot, were able to capture and tag the birds with radio transmitters. But, once they were released back into the wild, the scientists found it was almost impossible to pick up their radio signals to track them for future study using the hand-held receivers that comprised the state-of-the-art tracking method at the time.

Saunders decided to turn to unmanned aerial vehicles to provide the platform for tracking the tagged animals. That research led to the launching in 2016 of Wildlife Drones, a Canberra-based start-up with a customer base that spans Australia, the U.S. and other countries. Prior to the creation of the company, however Saunders spent a number of years proving out the concept of drone-based wildlife tracking and developing a research prototype.

Wildlife Drones Dr Debbie Saunders 4Wildlife Drones Dr Debbie Saunders 4

“This was just an idea many, many years ago and, we did a research project just to see if it was even possible,” Saunders said. “This was well before DJI was even prevalent, and so, the drones were really small, they didn’t carry very much, they didn’t fly for very long, so that’s the sort of constraints that we worked with initially.”

However, once her early research proved the feasibility of using unmanned aerial vehicles to track tagged animals, the next steps involved refining the technology, working with radio frequency engineers, software engineers and industrial designers to create a product and to make it accessible to the public.

The result was a suite of products that has attracted a global customer base, particularly in the U.S., where 50 to 60 percent of Wildlife Drones’ customers are located. The company’s flagship product, a drone-based telemetry system capable of tracking up to 40 animals simultaneously, consists of a radio receiver payload, which can be attached to an off-the-shelf drone, and a laptop base station.

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Wildlife Drones, Save Vietnam’s Wildlife

Saunders said customers have developed a number of applications for the technology, from its original use for tracking the location of endangered animals, to farmers and ranchers keeping track of their livestock, to conservationists following the movements of invasive species so as to better control or eliminate them.

“You have invasive species that are incredibly damaging, not only to the natural environment, but to agricultural production as well, like feral pigs, for example, or Burmese pythons down in the Everglades,” she said.

The system has even proven useful in tracking invasive hornets coming into the northern U.S. from Canada. The pesky insects are captured using baited traps and then fitted with tiny radio tags glued onto their bodies. Released back into the wild, the small invaders can be tracked back to their nest, which can then be destroyed, eliminating the infestation.

The use of drones allows the operator to track highly mobile animals across a variety of terrains, which would be impossible using other tracking methods. “If something is pretty fast moving, the drone can go over fences and across roads and over a mountain ridge, if need be,” Saunders said.

In addition, because it is airborne, the drone can provide a high point to collect radio signals over long distances, without being blocked by trees, mountains or buildings.

In addition to its proprietary radio telemetry technology, Wildlife Drones also offers thermal imaging services. Since thermal imaging allows the user to locate untagged animals in the wild, the two technologies can be very complementary.

“You can use the thermal imaging to find animals in the landscape. Then you can actually go and catch them and tag them. And you can then track them with the radio telemetry system,” she said.

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System works best with less ‘noisy’ drones

Because it picks up VHF radio signals, the system is only compatible with a certain class of drones, those that are shielded in such a way that the electronic “noise” from the UAV’s internal workings does not interfere with the external signals from the tagged animals. For this reason, Saunders said the system does not work very well with DJI drones.

“For example, the Matrice 300 is incredibly noisy in the VHF band,” she said. “If you can imagine, we’re trying to listen for something, but there’s something right next to us that’s screaming, it’s going to be very difficult to pick up the signal of a low-powered tag.”

The system works better when used with other, “quieter” UAVs, such as Freefly Systems Astro, produced in Washington state.

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“We did a lot of R&D with them. That’s been really successful, and now that’s our key platform,” she said. “It’s a beautiful platform made in the U.S., and that also means that it can be used by clients who are not able to use Chinese-made drones.”

Wildlife Drones is continuously working to innovate its technology. Its most recent product release, the Dragonfly payload unit, for example, is smaller, lighter and much more robust than the company’s previous payload packages.

“The smaller and the lighter we can get the payload, while still being robust is definitely a goal,” Saunders said. “It’s a really exciting piece of kit that you literally just clip into the gimbal, strap the antenna onto the legs, and you just take off and start tracking. It all just kind of works out of the box.”

Although Wildlife Drones’ technology is currently designed for use with quadcopters, Saunders said she would like to see it eventually be adapted for use with larger aerial vehicles, such as next-generation vertical take-off and landing vehicles (VTOL).

“I think the different VTOL platforms are going to be game changers in terms of how far you can go, how much data you’re able to collect and all the rest of it. But, of course, that relies on the regulations allowing long-range flights or beyond line of sight flights.”

Jim mug2Jim mug2Jim Magill is a Houston-based writer with almost a quarter-century of experience covering technical and economic developments in the oil and gas industry. After retiring in December 2019 as a senior editor with S&P Global Platts, Jim began writing about emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, robots and drones, and the ways in which they’re contributing to our society. In addition to DroneLife, Jim is a contributor to Forbes.com and his work has appeared in the Houston Chronicle, U.S. News & World Report, and Unmanned Systems, a publication of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

Miriam McNabbMiriam McNabb

Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has penned over 3,000 articles focused on the commercial drone space and is an international speaker and recognized figure in the industry.  Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.
For drone industry consulting or writing, Email Miriam.


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