Military technology used to hunt down insurgents in Afghanistan has been taken up by Britain’s biggest nature conservation charity to safeguard some of the country’s rarest birds. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is using a remotely controlled drone to spy on the nests of endangered breeds and monitor the progress of reintroduced species.

It was created by Nigel Butcher, the charity’s answer to James Bond’s lethal gadget inventor Q, at its new Centre for Conservation Science in Sandy, Bedfordshire, southern England. “A lot of our stuff filters down from military use,” Butcher said. “We built the ‘copter about a year ago and have added bits and pieces to it since, like radio tracking, thermal imaging and wide-angle cameras.”

Breeding patterns of bitterns and marsh harriers can be seen without disturbing precious habitat, and the RSPB is also using the drone to monitor how cranes and corncrakes are faring as they are reintroduced to the U.K. It also plans to reach inaccessible nests over wetlands for the BBC Spring Watch series at the Minsmere reserve on the east coast.

“In the case of a marsh harrier, we might want to use it to check on the state of a nest without traipsing in,” Butcher said. “We don’t like to put cameras close to nests until the eggs have hatched, because the birds can be prone to deserting the nest.” The main advantage of the craft is how quiet it is, Dr. Butcher said. “It only has six little electric motors so it is almost drowned out by ambient sound and the wind, and doesn’t disturb the birds,” Butcher said.

The thermal imaging camera can track birds and mammals at night, when many species are most active. And like a combat drone, the RSPB’s model can be piloted remotely using a live video feed.

The team prepared to capture night footage of the elusive corncrake in the Cambridgeshire Fens by practising on chickens. “It’s tricky to get heat signatures off birds because the feathers are such good insulators. We did some trial runs with my wife’s chickens, and found that the head and feet give off a signal,” Dr. Butcher said.

The preparation paid off. The team filmed grainy footage of the bird in thick reed beds. “We were very pleased with that because it’s not been done before with a thermal imager,” said Andrew Asque, Dr. Butcher’s assistant.

But despite its benign purpose, the project and the growing use of drones for international conservation projects has prompted alarm about privacy.

Chris Sandbrook, a lecture in conservation leadership at Cambridge University, said: “What the RSPB are doing with drones sounds like a good thing, and I’m sure they will be accompanying it with some sensible messaging to reassure the public that there are not al-Qaeda operatives hiding in reed beds,” he said.

“But if you lived next to an RSPB reserve and saw one of these things flying around at the end of your garden, and didn’t know why it was there, you might be a bit worried.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2014

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