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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Why Drones?

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 19, 2011

Southern right whales

The idea of an article on drones may seem strange to regular readers of this page.  But there is at least a slight connection to my usual topics in animal behavior.  One pioneer in putting drones to work is Daniela Rus, an MIT researcher, who recently collaborated with whale expert Roger Payne to track southern right whales along the coast of Argentina.

From the beach, in one video clip, they thought that they were seeing four whales.  But when the drone flew overhead, it revealed there were actually six of them.  You can see some of the videos here.

The impressive thing is how close the drone can get without disturbing the animals.

That potential also had naturalists excited in southern Africa when I visited early this year.   Rhino researchers wanted drones as a tool for doing population counts over large distances without scaring off the animals.  And anti-poaching units wanted drones as a means of spotting poachers.

P-51 Mustang

But to be honest, that’s not why I wanted to write about drones.  Here’s what Carey Winfrey, Smithsonian’s outgoing editor, writes in the June issue of Smithsonian:

Richard Conniff, who has written for Smithsonian since 1982, is the author of nine books, most recently The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth, about pioneering 18th- and 19th-century naturalists. But his first love was airplanes. “When I was a kid,” he says, “I was fanatically interested in aviation. My bedroom ceiling was hung with P-38 Lightnings, Black Widows, Mustangs, Stukas—all of these World War II airplanes. When I grew up, I got interested in natural history, but this fascination was still there.” So his story about civilian applications of drones, or unmanned aircraft (“Ready for Takeoff”), had built-in appeal to him. It, too, evoked an earlier time. “The informality of the business, the spontaneity and daring of it, the inventiveness of it, the riskiness of it and characters straight out of a novel—all the things that made aviation so exciting in the early years—are present in this fledgling industry. That’s what got me interested and that’s what I really liked best about the story.”

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