(L-R): The four directors of ConservationDrones.org, Simon Wunderlin,
Brenden Duffy, Lian Pin Koh, and Serge Wich, with the Caipys they assembled that will be sent to Nepal, India, and Thailand.
The Techpod drone was used in Belize. The
camera is attached to the underside of the
fuselage and angled down.
An Idea Is Born
Lian Pin, originally from Singapore, received his Ph.D.
from Princeton University, located in Princeton, New Jersey,
in 2008. While there, he was introduced to model aviation
and, for a time, was an AMA member. He is now an associate
professor of conservation ecology at the University of Adelaide,
in Adelaide, South Australia.
Serge hails from the Netherlands and now serves as a
professor of primate biology at Liverpool John Moores
University, in Liverpool, England, and as an honorary professor
for the conservation of great apes at the University of
Amsterdam in the Netherlands.
The two met in Zurich in 2011 to discuss the challenges of
wildlife conservation in Southeast Asia, and came up with an
idea about a new way to gather data from rain forests. Lian Pin
thought he could use model aircraft to gather some good data
from cameras attached to model airplanes flown above the trees.
Studying orangutans in the Sumatran rain forest usually
involves organizing expeditions that can last several weeks.
Such expeditions are time-consuming and expensive, but more
importantly, you may never see an orangutan while you are
out. How frustrating! Serge had been doing these expeditions
Lian Pin’s favorite experience so far in flying a conservation
drone was his first flight over the Sumatran rain forest.
“When our prototype drone, which is basically a HobbyKing
Bixler fitted with an ArduPilotMega v1.1, safely returned
to us after a 20 km [approximately 12. 5 miles] mission, the
GoPro camera brought back amazing video footage of the
rainforest. We felt for the first time like birds flying over
those trees!” he said.
Lian Pin and Serge began to realize the myriad applications
for drones in conservation research, and how huge their
impact could be. They concluded that others could also benefit
from this method of gathering data.
Where does the money for drone testing come from?
ConservationDrones.org has received support from multiple
organizations, including the National Geographic Society, the
World Wildlife Fund, DroneMapper, and DIY Drones.
What Constitutes a Conservation Drone?
Conservation drones consist of an airframe, an autopilot
system, a camera, and software to program the aircraft.
Airplanes, helicopters, and multirotors have all been used in
Lian Pin uses the ArduPilot Mega (APM) to autopilot the
drones, which include a computer processor, GPS, data logger,
pressure and temperature sensor, airspeed sensor, triple-axis
gyro, and accelerometer. According to Lian Pin and Serge, most
RC model airplanes could be converted to autonomous drones
by simply combining open-source mission planner (APM
Planner) software and the
In the organization’s June
2012 issue of e-newsletter
Science, Lian Pin and Serge
discussed testing a Canon
IXUS 220 HS digital camera
and a Pentax Optio WG- 1
digital camera with GPS
in the prototype drone for
taking still pictures. A small
rectangle removed from
the bottom of the fuselage
allowed the camera lens
to extend. For videos, Lian
Pin prefers to use a GoPro
HERO attached to the
underside of an airplane.
Lian Pin gave a
presentation on using drones
Photos provided by ConservationDrones.org
32 Model Aviation APRIL 2015 www.ModelAviation.com