Tracking Emerging Innovations: Aerial Vehicles with Force

Out on a mountainside in Hawaii are a bunch of snails we’re concerned about. Some we’re concerned about because their numbers have dwindled far too low to be sure they are buffered against extinction: there are 40-some species of Oahu tree snails that are listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA). But the other snails we’re concerned about are invasive species, such as the African giant land snails that compete with the Oahu snails, and predatory snails like the rosy wolf snail that eat the native snails. (Invasive snails are also a threat to numerous ESA-listed plant species and agricultural crops.) How to address the invasive snails — and many other invasive species, from plants to rats — is a huge, unanswered challenge.

In the Center for Conservation Innovation at Defenders, we not only develop novel solutions for pressing conservation questions, we stay on the lookout for developments in other fields that may ultimately lead to solutions. So when a new paper was published in Science Robotics late last week, I was intrigued. The authors — from Stanford and Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland — show how small aerial vehicles (~100 grams — about the weight of a bar of soap) can be designed to apply force and move substantial objects, an idea based on how wasps drag their prey. In this case, the tests included one where a vehicle flew into a collapsed bridge and then used a cable to haul a sensor in for measurements; and another test where a pair of vehicles worked together to open a door (check out Figure 6 in the paper).

What if we turned those capabilities to solving the challenges of managing invasive species? What if small aerial drones could fly into the complex environment of a Hawaiian forest, with one looking for invasive snails and another hauling them off to be disposed of? What if these drones could use their force capabilities to pull invasive plants that out-compete native, imperiled species in Florida? What if livestock are managed to use pastures with low predation risk but a gate is accidentally left open and they move to a riskier pasture? Perhaps these devices can be used to fly around and close gates and help minimize the risk of conflict. What if these devices could patrol beaches as sea turtles hatch and help orient the hatchlings to the ocean if they get disoriented by shore lighting, which is a significant problem in many places? All of these — and many other scenarios — are coming closer to real possibilities, which means we may have ways to address certain classes of long-standing conservation challenges.

This “ideal” future is not without concern. Does society think we should have little robots out in nature, flying around doing “stuff,” even for conservation? In some situations, like when deciding to not do anything could mean the extinction of a species, the answer may be a relatively easy yes. But the decision may be much harder in cases that are less dire, and there are still potential costs like harassing wild birds or other animals. Currently, conservation robotics makes up a tiny amount of any conservation activities budget; will society want to pay for these technological solutions, even if they are far more cost-effective than other solutions? When the endangered species recovery program is funded at less than 25% of what is needed, how much should we put into experimental projects? Or would some of those projects ultimately create cost savings that allow broader conservation? Again, in some situations it may be an easy yes, but in others it may be a tough call. There is no technically right answer to these types of questions — the answers are values-based and vary widely among different people and groups, and society will eventually have to come to an answer to develop effective and accepted policies.

Looking ahead to develop good, reasoned answers, rather than being forced into bad ones, is why we do what we do at the intersection of science, technology, and policy in the Center for Conservation Innovation. We don’t do it for the drones — we do it for the Oahu tree snails, the plants in Florida, and so many other species that need our help to survive and recover.