In 2011, Koh met with Serge Wich, a primate biologist, and they began discussing the Sumatran orangutan, one of many species imperiled by deforestation and habitat encroachment. It was during a meeting in Zurich that the two hit upon the idea of using an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, to monitor conservation zones and explore areas that would be otherwise inaccessible on foot. Koh and Wich wanted to make these drones available for environmental groups across the globe.
Most commercially-available drones were too expensive for their ambitious goal – especially in developing countries that needed them most. So Koh and Wich built their own.
For under $2,000, the men built a UAV that was able to fly 30 missions over North Sumatra. After footage of their drone went viral, they received enough support to found ConservationDrones.org, “a worldwide initiative that seeks to build capacity in the developing tropics to use UAVs for conservation, and to raise public awareness of conservation challenges in those regions.”
Today, Belize is using the drones to patrol its expansive coral reefs, the largest reef system in the western hemisphere. Dr. Julio R. Maaz, the community fisheries coordinator for Belize, plans to use the drones to monitor the coastline for illegal fishing. “Expectations are very high in Belize,” Maaz told the New York Times. “There’s so much we can do and need to do.”
Koh and Wich have designed different drones to withstand different environments. “Now we have a whole fleet of conservation drones built for different purposes,” says Koh. “The ones we built for Belize were specifically designed to withstand the harsh saltwater environment.”
ConservationDrones are currently partnered with over 20 different wildlife organizations. and demand for their drones is rising across the globe. Australia is using them to monitor seabird populations, Madagascar and Gabon are using them for conservation work, and Nepal is using them to fight poachers.