Fly It To Conserve

Using drones: radically different

- By Nilesh Singh, April 08 2021 


India’s lockdown to shrink the spread of COVID19 halted college attendance and all formal college education in May 2020. Ironically, half way through my postgraduate course in wildlife conservation, I became a college ‘dropout’.

When the Corona outbreak kept so much on hold, it would be next to impossible to do research in a subject so fully based on field experience. A promising career in wildlife conservation seemed to witter away into the distance. Multiple jobs - working at a call centre, Instagram marketer, receptionist - kept finances stable. Things turned right when I applied for a drone or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) pilot’s job to monitor tigers in Sariska Tiger Reserve, Alwar District, Rajasthan and got it.

Learning on the job

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Photo capture by Nilesh Singh, Bengal Tiger ST21 at Sariska Tiger Reserve in February 2021

The first drone flying assignment given to me was village relocation. During that assignment, I noted that human dwellers living in the forest do not fear wildlife because these animals instinctively avoid human settlements. Villagers in Sariska forest area derive contentment from harmonising with the jungle and its rich natural heritage. In order to protect their farmland from peacocks, porcupines and wild boars, they take turns to watch over their agricultural fields from a Machaan (or treehouse) at night.

Kaziranga was the first national park in India to utilise drones for targeting rhino poachers. History mentions tech companies using drones to map out areas for the military. Wildlife Conservation Reserves in Indian states now use that same technology for national park mapping, to detect habitat destruction, to monitor wildlife, understand wildlife migration patterns and to track wildlife.

24/7 surveillance camera installed in Sariska Tiger Reserve include optical cameras, thermal cameras, drones. They detect the felling of trees inside the Reserve, grazing by domesticated animals, forest fires and criminal transgressions. My own work covers tiger monitoring,  mapping village relocation, aerial videography and the study of floral distribution.

In the middle 

It was researcher Aman Bhatia’s post seeking a drone pilot that put me right in the middle of wildlife conservation. Unrecognised, unstable, physically challenging, a drone pilot’s career with long hours of traveling through the jungle, is not time bound.

It is important that the drone does not disturb wildlife. But its constant movement and sound has caused raptors to attack a drone. The pilot is in charge of the drone’s safety while it glides through the wilderness. It is also my job to make sure it does not infringe on individual privacy.

Information we collect requires special safety and permission to access it. Protection from hackers is therefore also a safety priority.

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Wildlife conservationist, drone pilot Nilesh Singh

UAV instrumentality

When it comes to studying migration patterns, counting bird nests and finding ways to reduce human-wildlife conflict, UAV’s instrumentality is undeniable. The fact that the drone collects GPS, time and weather details make the aerial photographs and videos accurate. Its role in collecting atmospheric data, data on deforestation, habitat destruction, fragmentation, help with disaster management, land mapping and planning the boundary turns the tide in favour of implementing wildlife conservation.


Cleanup drive at Ruparel River by Tanwar Foundation (l to r): Kapil Chauhan, Kapil Shekhawat, Nitin Singh, Deepak Tanwar, Nilesh Singh. 

While doing the drone pilot’s job for 7 months, I explored Sariska Tiger Reserve in my leisure time and addressed different environmental concerns. Attending online courses, volunteering in the Ruparel river clean up drive with Tanwar Foundation, assisting in a waterbird count survey, an internship on roadkill survey covering roads that criss-cross Sariska Tiger Reserve built up my proficiency in wildlife conservation.

This is all collateral benefit, in my view, of discovering through drone technology… like the knowledge that agriculture uses mini drones to pollinate almond, cherry and apple blossoms. UAV technology’s time-and-cost effective data collection method makes a lot of impossible tasks possible.

Drones are a revolutionary benefit to environmental services beyond conventional methods. Flying across difficult terrain untouched by the human footprint, from a polar summit peak to a dense tropical forest, it transcends human limitations. It works at 400-600m above ground level, in slightly dusty atmosphere, in a drizzle or at extreme temperatures of ±55 degree Celsius, collecting data efficiently from inaccessible places even in harsh conditions. All this extreme weather capability makes the drone pilot’s job challenging. Software allows the setting of a pre-flight navigation plan for drones. But inaccessible areas require skilful piloting handled with a remote. The lithium ion battery that is generally used gives up to 25 minutes flight time.

Surveillance Team.jpg

(l to r) Nilesh Singh with surveillance team Keval Saini, Anil Bhatia, Pawan Jangid, Irfan khan (in front) 

Software malfunction can cause the loss of a drone. Internet access problems in the middle of the jungle can block updating the maps used when we move from one location to another. So the drone’s ability to return to its original location in case of emergencies like a GPS error or a low battery is remarkable.

Permission to fly a UAV 

The ministry of civil aviation has made flying a drone legal in India regulated by Indian Directorate General Of Civil Aviation (DGCA). It announced India’s first Civil Aviation Requirement (CAR) for drones on 27 August 2018.

  • Except for those falling in the nano category, drones must be registered and receive a unique identification number (UIN).

  • All drone pilots require Digital Sky platform’s permission to fly a drone.  Without permission, the drone cannot take off using the mobile app.

  • The drone pilot should maintain flight at the line of sight.

  • Drones cannot fly in No-fly-zones like airports, defence bases and high security areas.

Permission to Fly UAV.jpg

Drone flight studying floral distribution.

For the betterment of society and environment, the Environmental Department should, in my view, adapt and accept this technology for disaster management, in monitoring flora and fauna, study forest cover, precision farming and in studying soil erosion. As drone technology develops,

a lot of potential is yet to discovered. May 01 1999 to inpatients with advanced incurable cancer.

Hope for the better future.

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Aavish Kumar

To be honest your article is informative and very helpful. I enjoyed it a lot. keep writing such useful stuff.

Savita Singh

I always saw drones in the movies and magazines. But when nikesh singh (writer of the article and my nephew) started working as the drone pilot, we came to know about the profession and understood this newly designed job opportunities amidst nature. I am loving to understand these new things. Looking forward for more

Tarun Saini

Two amazing thing together "Drone" & "Wildlife" is enough to say that this job is amazing. we inspired from people who courage to do something different from rest of the crowd.

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