This project’s beginnings go as far back as the early 90’s in the deserts of Eastern Saudi Arabia. My father, who works in the country and has been obsessed with aviation all his life, took the family out to the dunes a few hours outside the city to fly one of the many Remote Controlled model aircrafts that he would bring into our lives. I was very young and could do nothing more than instantly lose control and probably plough it into the ground had I been left with the controls for long enough (an occurrence that would become exceedingly familiar to me many years later during the Desert Kit Fox Project), but RC aircrafts became the toys I grew up with.
The other side of the story intersected with me several years later while I was in India. We’ve admittedly done a terrible job of keeping them alive, but tigers have always been a part of the national consciousness. As early as the 70s, researchers have been using pugmarks (aka footprints) to identify tigers and estimate their populations. Even the term comes from the Hindi word for ‘foot’ – pugh. While undoubtedly useful for the information they did provide, researchers began to see the flaws in the methods and worked to improve them. At one point the situation became contested enough for ‘pugmark’ to become a dirty word in Indian conservation (Citation needed!).
Things started to come together in North Carolina, on Duke’s campus. Zoe Jewell and Sky Alibhai hosted a guest course on Non-Invasive wildlife monitoring at my school. After years of working with several species and tracking techniques in Zimbabwe, their research organization WildTrack now focuses on statistical processing of footprint images to identify endangered animals at the species, individual, age-class, and sex levels. The statistics behind it are incredibly thorough and identification success rates for the species they work with are over 95%.
Meanwhile, I had fallen in love with desert kit foxes and their habitat after being assigned to work on them as an intern at the Center for Biological Diversity. These foxes had been hit by a disease outbreak and aren’t a research grant-attracting species. What could be better than a non-invasive, inexpensive population estimation study? Right?
So it turns out that nothing prepares you for the desert like being in the desert. Did you know the desert is hot and windy? Shocking! It took all the naiveté in the world for me to think there would be foxes skittering around the desert leaving around lots of prints on the track plates I would leave for them.
In May 2013, during a small scoping mission with Adarsh Raju , the both of us realized there wasn’t a trace of a kit fox to be seen in 3 nights of searching and a few weeks later I would forcibly discover that the desert likes to burn and blow things away. Things like dusted track plates.
And it clicked. We were defeated but still had a few hours left. As Adarsh drove down endless desert roads that we had been crisscrossing all weekend, I blurted, “I need to use a drone”. It was the most natural thing in the world to me; all my life I have been seeing these toys fly at a height that would be perfect to photograph distinctive desert kit fox burrow entrances
that were so few and far between. … But it turns out the word “drone” is as dirty as “pugmark” became by the 2000s. I lost count of how many times I heard “If it was doable someone would have done it already”. Ladies and Gents, if there is anything you take away from this post, let it be that nobody should ever believe that logic. Luckily for me, in addition to my aviation-enthusiast father, my family includes a robot-building engineer brother. We settled on a hobby grade mid-sized quadcopter mounted with a humble GoPro camera after dismissing acrobatic but difficult to fly fixed wing crafts, and $10,000 commercial aerial survey crafts. This is a newer version, but the similar original quadcopter was also around $1500 for a basic set up that I would require. Ready to Fly! Online order ships from California! Thousands of hobbyists do crazy acrobatics with it all the time – why shouldn’t I be able to have it putter around the desert in straight lines while taping foxes? Right?
Well, I was right this time. The proof is in the masters research that was approved for me to graduate with. The year between then and this post is a very long story, though.
Next in the Series: The set up