Drone Research Summary

Drone Research Summary

The LAT NonProfit recently dispatched committee members, Laura Kelley and Thomas Bayer, to interview Dr. Denise Spaan and Dr. Filippo Aureli to learn first-hand how the recent research ‘drone’ symposium at Los Arboles went.  

Denise had received a grant from National Geographic Society for this project, and she succeeded in bringing a group of leading scientists together, including a renowned primatologist, a noted astrophysicist, an engineer specializing in drones and even a documentary film team sponsored by Pangea World Foundation to record the event.  Laura and Thomas provided their home in LAT as the team’s headquarters to be right in the thick of the jungle.

Laura and Thomas have been involved in field research themselves and know how complex such undertakings are.  The fickle character of Mother Nature can intervene with even the best laid logistical plans.  It had rained for days on end while the whole team of investigators was in LAT.  All of us were concerned that inclement weather had jeopardized the project.  

Therefore, the cliff-hanging opening question to Denise was if she considered the symposium a success.

There was no hesitation in her reply. “Beyond even the most optimistic expectations!”  Everyone involved felt the same, she added, and plans are being made to return in the future.

The interview lasted from 12:30 pm to nearly 7 pm, the hours being taken up with a detailed, technical explanation of the research, the special equipment involved, the methodology employed and the larger purpose of the research.  Denise also showed a sample of some of the video footage to demonstrate the effectiveness of the tools used.  

Below is a summary of what Denise and Filippo had to say. 

In short, the purpose of bringing this team of specialists to LAT was to test the capability of using purpose-built drones equipped with heat-sensitive (thermal imaging) cameras for animal conservation projects, specifically, involving medium-sized primates – like spider monkeys.

These expensive thermal imaging cameras have been used successfully for some time to recognize and monitor large mammals and apes from the air.  However, the technology had not been tested on much smaller heat-emitting bodies, such as spider monkeys, hidden below dense jungle foliage among countless other objects, organic or inorganic, that radiate heat and are picked up by the camera.

Identifying thermal images is a specialization among astrophysicists.  For several decades now, these scientists have explored and classified objects in outer space and created a set of spectral markers based on the specific character of the heat emitted by a given object.  One of these specialists, Dr. Claire Burke from England was part of Denise’s team to help with the identification of the aerial observations generated by the drone’s thermal camera.  This was no ordinary store-bought drone, but a sophisticated observational device, rather menacing in appearance, engineered specifically for this purpose: quiet, highly mobile with plenty of power to deal with unpredictable wind conditions

At first glance, the footage taken by the aerial camera showed just radiating red, orange and white shapes of no particular distinction.  However, with Denise’s and Filippo’s help, it soon became possible to determine which of the blobs were, in fact, spider monkeys.

The footage was cleverly presented, juxtaposing the thermal images framed by a slightly larger conventional aerial view of the particular quadrant of the jungle under investigation – which, to Laura, looked like a ‘sea of broccoli’.

It gave one a feeling of having x-ray vision, like a comic book hero, stealthily discovering and observing a world normally hidden from our eyes.  There was even something voyeuristic about penetrating the protective shield of foliage and exposing the private lives of the creatures below.  Although, discerning what was a monkey or any other living creature was challenging, it was nevertheless exciting to watch the process unfold.

Dr. Filippo Aureli, world-renown for his expertise in spider monkeys, explained the larger purpose behind customizing drones and calibrating heat-sensitive cameras and their software for spider monkey observation.  This specific type of primate is apparently able, by its behavior patterns, to provide conservation experts, like Dr. Denise Spaan, with data on the health of the surrounding environment.  The better and the less obtrusively scientists can observe these animals, the more can be learned.  Moreover, Filippo pointed out that spider monkeys are an endangered species, and keeping close tabs on their numbers helps to protect them.

Why was Los Arboles chosen for testing and fine-tuning the custom-designed research drone?  The answer lies in the specific character of our community.

Spider monkeys, who are among the top three primate species in terms of intelligence, have realized that the humans they encounter every day within Los Arboles- and even seek out for their own entertainment – are no danger to them.  They are used to us, they are used to our cars, and they are used to construction-related noise.  

Los Arboles was selected, therefore, based on the assumption that the monkeys who live in Los Arboles would not change their own behavior as a result of being studied – a particularly pesky problem in any observational science, not just animal observation.  The assumption proved to be correct.  The monkeys were undeterred by the whirring of the propellers above them, and they paid no attention to the humans down below, lugging around computers and piloting equipment that would have looked at home at a rocket launching facility.

A research grant from such a prestigious organization as the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY is significant for any scientist.  Being chosen for the location of the project is equally significant for Los Arboles and the mission of our community.  As Filippo will attest to, LAT is unique in its proactive commitment to Nature’s protection.  Due to this uniqueness, we offer hitherto impossible opportunities to researchers and scientists.   

We are looking forward to supporting future joint ventures with prominent organizations and scientists from around the world.

The video created by the filmmakers will be made available to us.  However, the grant came with the condition that for a period of 6 months after the final report is turned over to the National Geographic Society, the organization has the exclusive use of the documentary.  Editing and report writing should be completed within the next few months.

The National Geographic Society plans to air the documentary first on its Latin American channel and then, possibly, on its North American and international channels.  The LAT newsletter will keep you up to date.

Meanwhile, those who are interested in learning more about this project will enjoy attending a public lecture by Dr. Denise Spaan on this topic presented as part of Zamas’ fall lecture series at the beach sponsored by ConMonoMaya.  Please look for the dates in the LAT newsletter.

If you have any questions regarding this and other exciting projects sponsored by the LAT community, please contact your nonprofit Committee at nonprofit@losarbolestulum.org

Your Nonprofit Committee

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