Pushing the limits of drone technology to protect marine life



Commercial drone pilot Melissa Schiele has joined Loughborough University’s Wolfson School of Mechanical, Electrical and Manufacturing Engineering – and she has big plans to protect marine life, writes Megan Cox.

The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) co-affiliated doctoral student plans to develop technology that can help tackle illegal fishing, better understand the movements of megafauna, and detect ghost nets – the ‘silent killers’ of the world. ‘ocean.

Melissa Schiele (Image: Loughborough University)

“Sometimes when I’m at sea and see the devastation caused by humans, I have to stop myself from sitting down and crying,” she said. “But that’s what drives me to do what I do and develop technology that can lead to real changes in conservation.”

In the first five minutes of meeting Melissa Schiele at a little cafe on the Loughborough University campus, two things became blissfully obvious.

How drones and AI protect endangered wildlife

Firstly, she has a fierce passion for the protection of marine life and secondly, she did not join the University. School of Mechanical, Electrical and Manufacturing Engineering to mess around.

She wants results.

Specifically, it wants to develop a waterproof drone (or an “unoccupied aerial vehicle” (UAV)) capable of reading the license plates of small illegal fishing vessels and of spotting fishing nets thrown in it. ocean while flying at altitudes of around 80m, which is not far from the height of the Statue of Liberty.

Melissa, originally from Chiswick, London, is a commercial drone pilot and for the past two years has traveled the world studying wildlife with the ZSL Institute of Zoology (IOZ), where she joined as a postgraduate researcher.

It flies fixed-wing drones – drones with a rigid structure that generate lift under the wing using airspeed – and uses them for a variety of applications, including the detection of marine megafauna, such as turtles, sharks and rays.

Melissa works closely with Dr Tom Letessier, marine biologist and ecologist at ZSL’s IOZ, who had the initial idea to explore the use of drones to help marine ecology.

protect marine life
Mel and Tom Letessier (Image Loughborough University)

The two men focused their efforts on using drone technology to help protect the British Indian Ocean Territories (BIOT) – a tropical archipelago in the Indian Ocean located just south of the Maldives.

BIOT is of considerable scientific interest due to its abundance of fauna, which includes coral reefs, tropical birds, fish and sharks. In 2010, it was declared a marine protected area, which means that no commercial fishing is allowed.

However, small and medium-sized illegal fishing vessels fish around the islands, often undetected, and target large pelagic fish species, such as tuna, as well as sharks for the fin trade.

According to Tru for the conservation of ChagosHowever, the number of sharks in the Indian Ocean has declined by 90% over the past three decades and illegal fishing continues to threaten them and other marine species.

A patrol boat has been assigned to BIOT but surveying over half a million kilometers of ocean is not an easy task and it is often difficult to detect small illegal boats.

Drones seemed to be part of a logical solution to this problem, but Melissa and Dr Letessier found that current technology limited what they could achieve at sea.

For example, traditional fixed-wing drones are not designed to land in water and multirotor drones are not an option because their operating range is limited.

Convinced that drones have a place in marine conservation, Melissa and Dr Letessier sought to overcome these challenges, and in 2018 they developed a new low-cost, fixed-wing, waterproof, and landing-on-the-land drone. water specifically for multi-use marine surveillance, thanks to funding from the Bertarelli Program in Marine Sciences – hosted by ZSL and the help of the Canadian drone company, Aeromao.

protect marine life
BIOT patrol boat and drone (Image: Loughborough University)

The UAV has live broadcast capabilities, can fly within a radius of 10 km, and is able to detect small fishing vessels 75 to 110 m high.

However, there is still room for improvement – for example, the current camera system cannot read vessel registration numbers at high altitudes, and the range the drone can fly needs to be extended.

Melissa made the decision to return to higher education and join Loughborough University because she wants to “push the boundaries of what is possible in terms of drone engineering in the field of conservation technology” and do take the system to the next step.

She hopes that with the support of engineering experts at Loughborough, she can develop two systems.

The first being a waterproof fixed-wing drone with a range of 25 km, which is specifically loaded with sensors to collect usable data that can be used in court during illegal fishing prosecutions.

The second is an inexpensive system that can be used by marine protected area managers, local forest rangers or fisheries control teams to easily monitor their waters for wildlife and fishermen.

Melissa, ZSL and the Loughborough team will test the kit extensively in the field and test its capabilities in three areas that underpin Melissa’s PhD:

  1. Fisheries monitoring (legal and illegal) and mapping at BIOT, Bahamas and Lake Victoria
  2. Detecting patterns in the movement of marine megafauna in the British Indian Ocean Territory and the Bahamas
  3. Detection and quantification of “ghost” nets and plastics in coastal areas and on the high seas and on the coasts.

The second objective is important because little is known about the movements of sharks and other marine species around BIOT islands, with or without invasive rats, and these data would be of great use to conservationists and conservationists.

In addition to focusing on the marine life at BIOT, Melissa will also look at the use of technology to detect pilot whales, sharks and turtles in the Bahamas.

Detecting ghostnets is also of great importance to environmentalists, as sharks, turtles and other marine life are naturally attracted to discarded fishing nets, where they become tangled and are unable to break free.

Entanglement can cause exhaustion, suffocation, starvation, amputation of limbs and possibly the death of a marine animal.

Melissa’s PhD marks an important milestone for Loughborough University as it is the first time that ZSL has collaborated with the institute as a research partner.

Commenting on its importance and coming to the engineering department, Melissa said, “Most of ZSL’s doctoral students are tucked away in either ecology or biology departments.

protect marine life
Mel and his team with a drone on a patrol boat (Image: Loughborough University)

“I think I might be the first to be based in a mechanical engineering department and bring drone engineering into conservation, designing, testing and improving.

“I hope to build capacity in situ and see drones used successfully in surveillance and conservation strategies.”

She continued, “I came to Loughborough because I needed the support of experienced and innovative multidisciplinary engineers who are comfortable at the interface of engineering and ecology and I have certainly found this here.

“My supervisors are incredibly well connected with the big players in the UK ‘marine scene’ and I am excited about the future collaborations that lie ahead.

“I also hope that other multidisciplinary doctorates will follow in my wake!

Further information on Melissa’s research can be found on her blog, The Intrepid Ecologist, here.

This article was written by Megan Cox and is courtesy of VOLUME, Loughborough University’s online magazine


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