Typically, animals are tracked in the bush using radio tags and hand-held trackers. But it can be difficult to pick up the tag signals or track rapidly moving creatures over vast distances.
The best way to find a signal is to get up high, but in the flat coastal wetlands where swift parrots live, for example, this isn’t always possible.
And a handheld device can track only a single animal at a time.
“Massive amounts of time and effort go into finding animals that go missing, and keeping up with them is tricky,” says Dr Saunders.
The tracker drone – a radio tracking system mounted to an off-the-shelf drone – allows scientists to search hundreds of hectares in a couple of days for tagged animals, and to track up to 40 animals at a time.
The drone does not follow the animals once they are found (“that would be harassment”), but logs their locations.
After the prototype was made, there was so much local and international interest that Dr Saunders stepped away from academia – though she still works at ANU part-time – and founded Wildlife Drones, of which she is chief executive and chief remote pilot.
The drones are hired out to government agencies – Zoos Victoria uses them to track orange-bellied parrots – and land management organisations in Australia and overseas, including to track rare pangolins in Vietnam.
A NSW project is tracking koalas in burnt and unburnt areas of forest to understand their movements after they are released, and to see if they survive.
“Generally, there is appalling survival rate after release, but no one is accountable for that, so this project will mean we can learn a lot about how to improve captive management,” says Dr Saunders.
Despite now running a tech startup and employing 10 people, Dr Saunders says her focus remains on wildlife, including the swift parrot. She recently visited a site in the Hunter Valley that used to be a nesting spot for the endangered birds, but found none in residence.
She says Australia’s regional forest agreements – made between the federal and state governments – need to change to make it impossible to log endangered species’ habitat.
“We know what we need to do and these species can survive. But we are choosing policies that are driving them to extinction.”
Miki Perkins is a senior journalist and Environment Reporter at The Age.