Drones have plenty of uses in conservation work as they can be employed to keep an eye from the sky on loggers and poachers, help monitor threatened animal populations or clean up trash from the banks of waterways.
In agriculture too drones can come in handy in a variety of ways from weed control to fertilizing. Soon these flying machines could also function as scarecrows all on their own by spotting and scaring off birds feeding on grapes in vineyards. And they’ll be able to do this without any human intervention.
This latest use for drones has been devised by researchers at Washington State University in the United States who have employed automated drones for protecting crops from birds like starlings and crows that can cause millions of dollars in annual damages by feasting on grapes or ruining them.
“Growers don’t really have a good tool they can rely on for deterring pest birds at an affordable price,” explains Manoj Karkee, an associate professor at the university’s Department of Biological Systems Engineering who led the research. “With further refinement and industry partnerships, this system could work,” he adds.
Over years of experimenting the scientists have developed a camera system (similar to those used in drone-assisted package deliveries) and a computer algorithm that enable small drones operating on their own to locate birds and count them as they fly into and out of observed fields.
The current generation of drones can also be programmed to scare off intrusive birds by hovering around them and making whirring noises.
In one field study drones reduced the number of pesky birds in a vineyard fourfold, the scientists say; however, they add, the long-term efficiency of the system will still need to be checked.
“Birds are really clever. They often find ways around deterrents. We don’t want a system that only lasts for a few months or years before they stop being scared off,” Karkee explains.
That is why future models could also emit sounds like the calls of predatory birds for greater efficiency.
“We could make drones look like predators, or have reflective propellers that are really shiny,” the scientist elucidates. “All of these working together would likely keep birds away from those vineyards and fields. We need to research that over multiple years to make sure.”
That said, the scientist stresses, “the results so far are exciting.”