Drones and Satellites for Good – Wildlife Watching from Above

Wildlife conservationists are constantly having to up their game to stay two steps ahead of criminal poachers. For a proper bird's eye view, a handful of organisations are looking towards the sky, using satellite technology to help protect species on the ground.

Autor*in Annalisa Dorigo, 07.28.15

Wildlife conservationists are constantly having to up their game to stay two steps ahead of criminal poachers. For a proper bird’s eye view, a handful of organisations are looking towards the sky, using satellite technology to help protect species on the ground.

Some applications of satellite technology are seen to be a breach of people’s privacy and are therefore rightly controversial. On the flipside of this, few would dispute that applications which are being developed to track wildlife and prevent habitat loss can be a force of good. Here, we take a look at three projects using satellite technology for exactly that purpose.

See What’s Happening on the Seas

The result of a partnership between SkyTruth, Oceana and Google, “Global Fishing Watch” is a technology platform that uses satellite data to inform the public about overfishing and make global fishing activity more transparent”.  With fishing providing livelihoods to hundreds of millions of people around the world, and with over two thirds of global fish stocks now having been overfished, it is clear that the long-term sustainability of our oceans is a critical social, economic and environmental issue. Illegal fishing activities have been able to go on undetected, something which the project seeks to tackle head on, but how?

Automatic Identification System (AIS) tracking data collected by satellite provides a global feed of vessel locations, revealing the movement of vessels over time.  AIS is essentially an automated radio broadcast containing data such as ship ID, location, speed and direction of travel. The technology was initially developed as a collision prevention tool.

Through a behavioural classification model, developed by observing the movement of some 110,000 vessels during a two year period in 2012 and 2013, Global Fishing Watch  is able to analyse and classify vessels movement patterns as either ‘fishing’ or ‘non-fishing’ behaviour. Fishing efforts are displayed in terms of how many hours each vessel has engaged in such behaviour, and are then shown on a map available to anyone with a web browser.

Licensed under: All Rights reserved Global Fihing Watch Global Fishing Watch map

Thanks to an interactive web tool, currently in its development phase, anyone will be able to visualise what the global fishing fleet is up to and where: the radius of operation of national vessels will be immediately visible, and so will any fishing occurring in protected areas.

For those vessels who might decide to turn off their satellite tracking device (AIS), and engage in Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing, Global Fishing Watch will still be able to pick up suspicious behaviour patterns, such as the sudden disappearance and re-appearance of vessels.

Global Fishing Watch is essentially a transparency tool through which citizens, civil society and the media will be able to act as watchdogs and hold those responsible to account when fisheries are shown not to be managed effectively; seafood suppliers will be able to monitor where their fish comes from, and to respond to growing consumer demand for supply-chain transparency and sustainable fishing practices, scientists will be able to help develop interventions that address fish stock decline, and governments will be able to act in case of non-compliance.

With an increasing number of countries making it compulsory for vessels to use AIS within their territorial waters – as of May 2015 all EU flagged vessels larger than 15m must use AIS – the information Global Fishing Watch collects, analyses and presents, are sure all set to benefit.

Join in! People are invited to take part during the development of the initiative by contributing ideas on how they would use the tool to help preserve the oceans. To add yours, just fill out their comment box at the end of this page.

A Bird’s Eye View of Wildlife

World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has been busy too, with a number of initiatives using satellite imagery and technology.  High-resolution satellite imagery from DigitalGlobe’s World View-2 is helping them map conservation areas in South Africa, and to identify elephants, buffalo and other animals’ travel patterns, as well as villages and local roads. Through this initiative, WWF wants to provide community leaders with information about wildlife and its impact on local infrastructure, and to help prevent conflict between people and animals.

Through GeoEyes’ Ikonos satellite data, WWF is identifying underwater grasses and their fish nurseries in Lake Malawi, while in South East Asia, work is underway to establish whether high-resolution data from German satellite Terra SAR-X can help pinpoint water holes where tiger prey gather.

Whether monitoring a single large animal, a herd of smaller animals, or the vegetation that support wildlife, high-resolution satellite images provide researchers with eyes in numerous locations, allowing them to capture data and investigate poaching activities without having to travel to remote areas, saving on time and cost, while sometimes also avoiding the risk of visiting conflict areas.

You can read more about the WWF’s own, and others’, endeavours in satellite technology in wildlife-tracking in this article.

Icy Terrain, I See Polar Bears

Lastly, in a research project by U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Science Center and the University of Minnesota, scientists have sought to determine the viability of satellite technology in tracking polar bears.

The study was carried out in Rowley Island in the Foxe Basin, Canada, chosen for its

high-density polar bear population during the ice-free summer months, its relative flat terrain, and contrasting dark landscape, making it an ideal setting to gauge the suitability of high-resolution satellite imagery.  Satellite imagery of polar bears was compared with existing ground data and found to pretty accurately identify polar bears population on the island.

Although further developments are needed that will enable the technology to be used in more complex topographies in which polar bears might not be as easy to spot, the authors believe that satellite imagery is a promising tool in this field, and one that could be used at much lower costs than traditional and more time-consuming ground and aerial surveys. You can read the findings of their study in this paper.

The above initiatives highlight how satellite technology is becoming increasingly important in tracking wildlife and habitat loss, in helping to measure the effects of climate change, and ultimately in aiding with the development of relevant policy instruments.

They also emphasise our ability for cross-boundary collaboration and knowledge exchange, the only viable approaches in dealing with such large scope and scale issues such as conservation, biodiversity promotion, climate change mitigation and adaptation.

From the bottom of the ocean to the outer reaches of the galaxy – the possibilities offered by drones and satellites are practically unlimited. Unmanned aerial vehicles are no longer only used in war zones. Equipped with cutting-edge technology, they are also valuable aids in the fight against pollution and social injustice. They can expose polluters and even locate people buried under rubble. In our RESET Special ‘Drones and Satellites for Good‘, we will introduce projects that use satellites and drones towards sustainable development.

Keeping an Eye on Fishy Activity

Global Fishing Watch is helping to monitor fishing activities in oceans worldwide.


Global consumption of fish is outpacing natural production, posing a significant threat to marine ecosystems. Commercially valuable species such as tuna, swordfish, marlin, cod, halibut, skate, and flounder are fished at enormous quantities to the point where populations of said species are dangerously low.