Deron Gue spends a lot of time flying his drone over Lancaster County farm fields.
He looks for crop damage, counts cows, shoots framable photos of farms for their owners, and once even aided rescuers trying to recover a body.
But the former schoolteacher from Washington Boro dreams of using his drone to help better manage Pennsylvania’s precious wildlife and the habitat they depend on.
“Drones are used worldwide for conservation, for monitoring and for habitat conditions,” he says.
Gue, 52, who formed Liberty Belle Drone Imaging Services (LBdrones.net) in 2016, already has a foot in the door.
In April, he spent several days with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, flying over elk herds near Benezette, Elk County, to show his drone’s potential for locating and keeping tabs on the largest members of the deer family in the state.
The free demonstration went well, as the elk looked up at the strange thing above them but didn’t bolt. Gue got some great photos and video of the elk, including bulls in velvet.
Gue’s vision of using drones to aid wildlife conservation seems prescient. In May, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife began experimenting with drone flights, also called unmanned aerial systems, to count elk over wide areas.
The drones did the work more safely and cheaply than the traditional method involving rented helicopters. Back in their offices, wildlife managers could view sharp images of elk. And one drone equipped with thermal imaging detected elk and calves hidden in trees, identifying them by their body-heat signatures.
Feed plots, eagle nests
Since his demonstration, Gue has had a callback.
In a follow-up trial flight being set up for later this month, Gue hopes to work with Game Commission elk biologist Jeremy Banfield for an aerial examination of the large plots the agency is establishing on strip mines to provide food for elk.
The Game Commission has spread wood pulp waste to neutralize the acidic soil on top of the mines, then planted grasses favored by elk.
Some of these plots have turned out better than others. Gue will fly his drone over the tracts to try to find out if the ground was not prepared properly or if certain invasive weed species are interfering with grass growth.
“Or, we may determine the land management division of the Pennsylvania Game Commission is doing an outstanding job. The idea is to report back to hunters what their money is being used for,” Gue says.
“I’d like to know how my money I’m putting into it is doing ,and I’m sure other hunters would want to know as well.”
Another Game Commission office has inquired about using Gue and his drone to monitor three bald eagle nests, after leafed-out trees have obscured its view.
As drone technology continues its rapid advance, Gue foresees the potential for drones to aid wildlife managers by tracking radio-collared animals, including deer, elk, rattlesnakes, otters, fishers and other wildlife.
The Game Commission uses traditional radio telemetry, which gives off only periodic signals and requires tracking with on-the-ground, hand-held antennas.
Drones are developing the capability of picking up GPS coordinates to locate an animal at any time. “It would be more viable and less intrusive if we had a fully functioning GPS locator,” Gue observes.
Gue readily admits not everything is in place quite yet to do all those things. One of the biggest limitations for wildlife monitoring adaptations is the current federal ban on drones being flown out of the sight of the flyer.
“The technology is there,” Banfield says. “You can find drones capable of five-hour flights. You can program a course and have it come back to you.
“ So it has potential, if the regulations can allow for out-of-line-of-sight flying. It’s still not a magic bullet.”