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Talking Point: Wildlife faces attack of the drones

FLYING burritos and pizza delivery by drone may be coming to your home sooner than you realised.

The growth in drones, or remotely piloted aircraft, is exponential, as are the potential applications.

As the price of drones comes down and remotely piloted aircraft become more available “off the shelf”, recreational use is growing alongside industry and government applications. Drone racing, pharmaceutical delivery, shark detection and weed zapping are just some of the innovations.

With growth in sales driving activity upwards, and drones occupying more airspace, what are the consequences for wildlife?

This is a question being raised at the Conference for Australian and New Zealand Planning Schools, a four-day gathering in Hobart next week that will examine the latest challenges and innovation in planning and education. The impacts of new technology on the environment is on the agenda.

Increase in the use of drones is common to both countries, and strong parallels can be drawn between Tasmania and New Zealand. Planning techniques are used to resolve spatial contests and where possible promote coexistence between humans and wildlife.

Headlines about drones and wildlife, more often than not, highlight the benefits for wildlife. Biodiversity conservation has led the way with beneficial applications such as forest seeding, mapping the Great Barrier Reef, counting seabirds and even whale snot collection being trialled.

Despite the benefits, the introduction of the technology has changed how humans use airspace with potential consequences for wildlife, including collision mortality and disturbance effects to wildlife. We have researched the potential consequences and examined if planning and regulation of drones keeps pace with the speed of technological change. In New Zealand we argue that it does not.

Much of the policy attention in New Zealand has focused on risks to human health, safety and privacy, but more recently, research is suggesting consequences for wildlife as well.

This is important for New Zealand which, like Australia, has high levels of threatened species, many of which exist outside of protective reserves.

“Flying for fun” is loosely regulated in Australia, although it has recently been tightened up for privacy and safety purposes.

The new rules cover aspects such as flight height, flying near airports and people, and avoiding emergencies. Concerns for wildlife aren’t visible, although several states, including Tasmania, have banned drone use in national parks without a permit.

In New Zealand, few remotely piloted aircraft controls exist for the benefit of wildlife apart from on the public conservation estate. This combines with limited protection for wildlife from human disturbance. Areas such as the coast are of particular concern due to the combination of high rates of threatened species and high rates of urban development and recreational activity.

Pressure for permissive regimes for drones is high, with users wanting access to the technology with as little red tape as possible. As one user suggested: “Way more birds are killed running into windows, why should we worry about drones?” Yet recent research demonstrates problems for wildlife from collision and disturbance, which magnify when a species is threatened.

It is also clear that operator technique, location and equipment choices can limit harm to wildlife.

So if opportunity to limit harm exists why would we not plan for this?

Delivering adequate regulatory capture while catering for a wide range of potential users in diverse environments, with varying skills, purposes and knowledge, requires careful consideration.

An important consideration for threatened wildlife is the sufficiency of existing wildlife law and its relationship to the operation of remotely piloted aircraft.

If the wildlife protection law and associated planning controls are already strong and extend to drones, little change is required. But if they are not, what type of controls are necessary to promote meaningful coexistence between people and animals?

If national parks protect the wildlife within them, should wildlife outside those boundaries also be protected? Should national policy be consistent? What are the social and economic drivers that support less regulation? Are best practice directions and education a good solution? Would approach distances like the ones used with whales work?

These questions will be up for debate next week in Hobart and we look forward to hearing the views of our Australian counterparts.

Dr Pip Wallace is a Senior Lecturer (Environmental Planning and Law) at the University of Waikato, New Zealand. She is speaking at the Australia and New Zealand Association of Planning Schools conference in Hobart, which is on November 2-4.

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