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Drones Help Rid Galapagos Island of Invasive Rats (ieee.org)
68 points by rbanffy 43 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 58 comments

For those interested, they did something very similar in the 1990s with the goat population and killed something like 250,000 goats: https://allthatsinteresting.com/project-isabela

"A Judas goat was a female who would be captured from the wild, tagged with a GPS tracking device, and then released to find other goats, especially lovelorn males.

The sharpshooters would take to the air again, track the Judas goat, find her hidden companions and gun them down, always leaving the Judas goat alive so that the whole process would begin again. Track, slaughter, repeat. The team eventually used 900 Judas goats over the course of a couple of years."

Probably gave those poor females a serious complex. Can you imagine how messed up you'd be if every time you approached someone of the opposite sex, they got shot from a helicopter?

I guess that's why I'm still single.

I know these types of comments are frowned upon on HN, but this made me LOL. Nicely done.

And this is why I don't believe in uprisings and revolutions in modern societies anymore. As an individual, even if you can buy guns, you are not that far away from the goat compared to what tech and training current militaries have.

In the specific, an unarmored helicopter hovering or moving predictably close enough for a marksman to shoot at a target (goat or otherwise) would be easy prey for a handful of people with small arms.

In the more general case, I don't think you quite appreciate how difficult counterinsurgency operations are, or how little tech affects them. Jets can drop some pretty nasty ordinance, but require targeting (the counterinsurgents _really_ don't want to damage infrastructure if they can avoid it) which they have trouble doing. Attack Helicopters are lean mean killing machines, but aren't great in urban environments and also need to PID their targets if the brass gives any fucks about civilian casualties. Tanks are great pretty much everything when it comes to conventional warfare, but _MUST BE SCREENED BY INFANTRY_. Looking at you, giraffe-man.

All this probably makes you think of drones (I'm going to only talk about large UAVs here), which are in fact a pretty useful asset to security forces. They can carry out assassinations, recon, target designation, gather intelligence, and all without risking pilots. However, in a large scale insurgency, they really aren't that useful in a tactical sense.

This is because of the simple truth that the only thing that can hold territory (especially cities) is infantry. A drone can't disperse a mob. A jet can't set up a checkpoint. An attack helicopter can't search a neighborhood for contraband. A tank can't rescue an informant in the middle of the night. Only infantry can do this.

And in spite of any training or technical advantages to date, an insurgent with a rifle can still kill infantry.

Makes sense, thanks.

A human can carry a shoulder-launched anti-aircraft weapon and destroy the helicopter, while hiding amongst the rubble of a chaotic urban environment.

Asymmetric warfare is very difficult. The US military struggled for many years and spent huge amounts of money fighting insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those are small countries compared to the US. Trying to fight an insurgency on home soil, without the support of a tax-paying public? Forget about it!

FWIW insurgent asymmetric warfare was how the US primarily fought its own revolution (there were a few set piece battles as well, e.g. Yorktown, hardly insignificant).

In the end I believe quite a bit of cash spread around Whitehall is what made the difference, though not everyone will agree.

In the US civil war there was much less of this for reasons unclear to me.

One theory would be that CSA's draconian conscription operation (watch or read Cold Mountain, for example) emptied the countryside of its natural defenders. The conscription level may have been necessary given the idiotic location of the CSA capital, but quite a bit about CSA was idiotic.

In Missouri, which didn't secede but had a lot of Southern sympathizers, this conscription wasn't really a thing, and there was lots of asymmetric warfare. It actually started in the 1850s in what would become Kansas. (There are good movies about this too: The Outlaw Josey Wales and Ride with the Devil.)

> The US military struggled for many years and spent huge amounts of money fighting insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan

They kill 100 fighters for one death on their side, and have control over the natural resources they want. I don't see the bright side for the opposite party.

> Trying to fight an insurgency on home soil, without the support of a tax-paying public? Forget about it!

That's a better argument. But that would assume the revolution would last. The local population would not have money or food either, but wouldn't have the supply chain or the reserve the military have.

The us lost these engagements though. Truly defeating insurgencies like these is currently beyond the reach of the most technologically advanced and well funded armies in the world.


A. You don't have to be alone.

B. You can be armed.

C. You have more intelligence than a goat.

I think that, until we get to automated police forces, rebellion will still be possible.

which is why lightly armed irregulars have such a shoddy record against superpower militaries

But humans aren't goats, even if they aren't in the military.

From the POV of an alien civilization observing how humans have been screwing Earth ecosystem we as well may be just like those goats.

Let's revisit this comment once the US leaves the middle east.

Does it look like any local fighting in the middle east is winning ?

Also, I've you looked at the body count on each sides ?

And in the end, don't the USA have the control of the local natural resources exactly as they wanted to ?

Doesn't look like anyone is winning really. If the military leaves right now, we'll probably just have ISIS 2.0 in a few years.

Urban combat is really painful for all involved. If it was like shooting goats from a helicopter wouldn't the conflict be over already?

Counter terrorism is not the real reason there is a war here. Several countries in Europe fight terrorism, and they don't need to go to war.

The american are still here because they benefit from it.

Winning a war and body counts are not the same thing.

Even in vietnam the US had a good ratio in terms of killing Vietnamese vs allied deaths. That doesn’t mean the US was winning.

The local fighters are slaughtered in mass for very little effect toward their objectives of liberation while the US still maintain control of the natural resources the way they want.

Winning is not always necessary.

I think they must have been doing this on a smaller scale in the 80s as well. When I was a kid my dad was doing some work with the Ecuadorian park service, and I went on a goat hunt on Isabela. The park rangers killed a lot of goats, and we barbecued one of them on the beach.

I wonder how effective this will be. About a decade ago the Tasmanian government successfully eradicated rabbits & rats on Macquarie Island - an important nesting place for penguins and albatross halfway to Antarctica.

They had to literally carpet the entire island in poison dropped from hoppers carried by helicopters. For seven years after that, the island was combed daily by hunters with teams of trained dogs before they could finally declare it pest-free. This was the largest successful island pest eradication program in the world at the time.


I may have missed this in the article, but does anyone know what organization or group is doing this work with drones on this project? I seem to see small companies pop up that offer 'drone support' on things like property photos, search and rescue, etc.

Are these often just some guy/gal who buys some nice drones then starts offering those types of services with them? Are there regulations, licenses or anything these people should or need to have to be considered legit and operate these types of services legally?

Just overall curious how these 'drone specialist' operations come to be..

I work in a university research group that builds and flies conservation drones. My supervisor literally wrote the book on the field. Broadly my job is to build egde-based machine learning systems for conservation (ie on the drone). My group has its own research agenda, but we do also provide equipment and fly for other conservation groups globally.

It's largely research (ie university) and private-ish conservation groups (eg WWF, ZSL) doing this. Typically we work with a partner in the country that we're operating in. Virtually all this sort of flying requires approval from the local government and aviation authority, so having someone local is vital. Plus you need access to the sorts of locations which you can't really get as an enthusiastic amateur. Conservation is a particularly difficult one to do because often the areas, like the Galápagos, are heavily protected. On the other hand there are places where you can fly with minimal restrictions (eg marine surveys) because there's minimal risk to the public. Conservationists have the best travel perks!

These drones are very often custom. Off the shelf devices are too closed or un-modifiable to be useful, but are fine for basic photographic surveys. Stuff breaks and you need to be able to field repair it. As soon as you start needing custom payloads, you need some expertise in drone development. It's cheaper for us to diy than it is to buy off the shelf, but only because we have engineers with experience to do it. We do have a couple of Mavics though, they're just nice pieces of kit. And there are lots of conservation groups who buy off the shelf drones for purely visual surveys.

So yes. Lots of regulations (we also have group members who liaise frequently with the CAA). It's increasingly difficult for amateurs or even small businesses to do this stuff. As soon as you want to start fiddling with hardware, you need to treat every drone like a proper aircraft. That means no modifications without signing off, proper operating procedures, pilots with currency requirements and so on. Most of it is legal protection, but it's there for a reason. Once you start thinking about extended or beyond visible line of sight...

As you mention, there are people who will fly drones as a service. There are less than there were, since drones are cheap and easy enough to fly that people do it themselves (illegally, usually). This is really limited to surveying and photographic work.

FAA regulates commercial drone us in America. I'd imagine places like the Galapagos may not yet have regulations around drone usage.

There are strict drone regulations in Ecuador and specifically in the Galapagos. They are banned except for scientific use.



The article says that the operation is being run by Island Conservation (a Californian group). It doesn't say that Island Conservation have outsourced the drones themselves.

Thanks! I looked more at their website about this project and looks like there was collaboration with other orgs on this. Below says "With the support of Island Conservation and New Zealand’s Environment and Conservation Technologies LTD., a pilot project was implemented using drones and hoppers with applicators designed in 3D printers."


Pretty cool.

The drones are used to carry and drop rat poison over the island, which is something a few steps behind of drones those equipped with laser gun to hunt and terminate rats just like the movie Oblivion (2013).

I had such a wonderful visual in my head, of drones with tiny machine guns doing night strafing runs on rats...


(Also was looking forward to the next article, about the rats scavenging from the drones and firing back...)

Check out the Cacophony Project [0]. I believe they were looking at using machine vision combined with poison paintball guns. Open source too!

[0] https://cacophony.org.nz

I really don't think this would be verify difficult to do really. Instead of a tiny machine gun think of a small air gun.

and one step behind just having them hunt regular people.

Plot twist: Drones hunting rats are actually several steps behind the drones that hunt people.

How do they make sure the other animals don't eat the rat poison? Is it just that no native species would find the bait tasty?

It's not clear from the article, but my guess is (as others noted) they'd have some level of confidence from testing against the other inhabitants of the island.

They could engineer the baits to look, smell, and taste especially unpalatable to the birds and iguanas there, or ship the baits in wrappings that rats could & would be able to penetrate, say a thick cellulose or cardboard wrap containing a single serve.

Typically the problem with baiting in this way is what happens when those animals die, and other animals eat the carcass. This isn't discussed either, but it sounds like a) local wildlife aren't big on scavenging dead animals, and b) the wildlife losses from this would be significantly smaller than from the rat infestation.

Oh, I can think of a dozen or so ways it MIGHT work, but I'm curious about how they actually did it.

One way would be to make sure the amount of rat poison is precisely calibrated so that the rats will get to it first and not leave a lot behind for other animals to consume.

And they must be confident the scavengers won't eat the poisoned rats? Or that it is worth the trade off?

There are often problems with cats and dogs eating poisoned rodents. This can be a serious emergency, but it develops rather slowly at first, and is often treated with blood transfusions, Vitamin K and lots of patience.

One way to lessen this effect would be to use doses so low that the rats will die but which would be diluted and metabolized by the time the animal actually dies.

The most popular rat poisons involve some sort of anti-clotting agent, to ensure a high mortality while keeping the animal alive long enough not to discourage other rats from eating the bait.

Overall the idea is probably to kill a higher percentage of the rats than of all the other species.

I believe (but I don't know for certain) that invertebrate scavengers may be immune to those poisons.

The Galapagos has only a handful of native species, so testing it with all of them might be feasible. At least if you count all of the finches at one species. :)

The specific island involved, North Seymour island, [0] has the following species: frigate birds, blue footed boobies, sea lions, marine iguanas, swallow-tailed gulls, snakes, herons, hawks, sharks, rays

[0] https://www.gogalapagos.com/islands/north-seymour/

I doubt this is an exhaustive list.

They left out the rats ;-)

It could be something like 1080 which harms mammals but is safe for birds. This poison is used a lot in New Zealand since we have a lot of native birds but only two species of native mammals (bats).


I imagine that cost savings would be pretty significant switching from helicopters to drones.

Related articles:



saw a presentation from HBO folks noting exactly this for film, you're talking well over $100k for a day for a chopper, IIRC. you can pretty much drop a couple of the highest-end cameras in the ocean for that much.

I remember watching a documentary a long time ago that showed helicopters dropping edible rabies vaccine in areas where raccoons had a high prevalence. I can't imagine the hourly rate of a helicopter to be low, drones seem like a good alternative.

Rat eradication using aerial baiting Current agreed best practice used in New Zealand (Version 3.1)


DoC is the NZ department of conservation - we try to be a fairly green country!

An article in Nature [0] has a few more details, including the fact that problems with the drones meant that only half of one island was baited by drone, and the rest of the island had to be done by hand. Looking on the bright side, Island Conservation, the Californian group that is conducting the operation, see this as having set up a controlled experiment (i.e. drone delivered baiting vs. hand delivered). Only one of the smaller islands was involved, not the whole group.

[0] https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00176-z

Yeah, but now the drones will start breeding out of control, and you'll have the same problem all over again.

That’s the best part. When winter comes the drones will simply freeze to death.

Don't be ridiculous. The Galapagos are on the equator.

That's when you bring in the anti-drone eagles to take care of the problem.

Somehow, the solution involves cane toads. This time it will work, i swear!

The rats were too smart, the drones couldn't respond fast enough. We needed them to be piloted, and we needed to make sure those pilots had the right stuff. We needed... battletoads.

All species on an island were invasive at one time or another.

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