Drones are new eyes of koala care

Philip Hopkins

Koalas in Victoria’s Strzelecki Ranges have a new ally to guard their safety – the all-seeing drone that detects any animal in its sights. It is the preferred technology of Latrobe Valley-based family company Hazelwood Forestry for its business of wild life management.

“Most of our work is koala management with Hancocks who have been on the front foot in managing koalas. We are really ramping up how to manage and protect them in forestry operations,” said Eloise Cluning, who operates the Hazelwood North company with husband Russell, an experienced local forester. Hancock Victoria Plantations has blue gum and pine plantations throughout the Strzeleckis.

“Koala spotting – we do it every day before that day’s harvest. We actually capture and translocate koalas under a permit from DELWP,” Ms Cluning said. She gave a talk on the role of drones in forestry at a recent seminar by the Institute of Foresters of Australia.

The spidery-looking drone weighs 9.5 kilograms, has a wing (arm span) of 1.66 metres, a height of 1.5 metres and a top speed of 65km/h.

“It’s difficult to move around, and is probably the biggest off-the-shelf registered drone you can buy. We picked that drone – it’s heavy so can handle quite a lot of wind before it gets too difficult,” Ms Cluning said.

The company had been doing manual spotting for six-and-a-half years before branching out into drone technology. It does surveys and population studies, assessing areas to which it can translocate families and what sort of management might be required.

This takes place not just before harvesting but also before controlled burns. It is a tough business, getting up early, even in winter. “We can operate in the dark. I really don’t know why all the harvest operators want to start at 3am in the morning, but they do,” she said.

Ms Cluning said the forestry environment for flying was difficult. “There are dozens of obstacles. It’s not as straight forward as flying in an open paddock,” said Eloise.

The animals are identified through thermal imaging. While they survey, the harvesters cannot come near the tree. “It’s quite labour-intensive and obviously a lot of koalas we are translocating are within the coupe boundaries. If we do not identify them and move them, they would be injured or killed. Koalas, unlike other wildlife, can’t jump out of the tree and move,” she said.

“They are at risk of being felled with the tree and processed with the tree, or flicked out of adjoining trees with trees being felled. They are not threatened in Victoria but it’s important we protect them and move them elsewhere.”

Koalas are quite visible in blue gum forest, but they get confused, spending a lot of time in pine trees. “Seeing a koala in pine trees is very difficult. Even with young pine, you’ve got such a dense canopy it’s very hard to see. The drones have helped in that regard,” said Eloise.

The drones have also greatly improved safety compared with manual spotting. “We ask the harvest operator to pause what he is doing – the machines are intimidating. We don’t have to be in the harvest area; we can be on a landing further away.” It also removes the hazard of having to walk in steep terrain through scrub and blackberries.

The pilot plays a crucial role; an automated drone does not have the flexibility to give the accuracy needed to find the animals in often dense forest. “A drone is far more accurate than any person. We have to stop the flight to check out every heat feature. Every heat signal looks the same to begin with – you need more time to identify it as a wombat, a koala, or a bird. Then you have to do some planning,” Ms Cluning said.

“Contrary to what you think, the lowest point is the best. In the gully you can fly up and keep line of sight opposed to on top of the hill, where you have to work from above the tree line and down. It gets easier as harvesting goes along as you have more clear fell area.”

Weather – too much daylight, heavy rain or fog – can hamper the use of drones. However, eagles are the biggest enemy. “Generally in the dark, the eagles leave us alone, but they definitely work in packs. Once, there were five eagles, I got chased as I brought the drone in to land,” said Eloise.

“A few have checked out the drone. It’s a bit too big and noisy for some; you have to be a brave eagle to take it on. One actually threw the drone into a tree. Eagles were circling as we retrieved the drone.”