Australian Forestry Company Uses Drone to Spot Koalas Before Cutting Down Trees

The Hazelwood Forestry company uses UAVs thermal imaging to locate and protect local wildlife during its operations.

The Latrobe Valley-based Hazelwood Forestry company in Victoria, Australia is using unmanned aerial vehicles to keep an eye on the local koala population. According to the Latrobe Valley Express, the implementation of camera drones is helping Eloise and Russel Cluning spot the animals amidst the thick foliage before felling any trees. This process saves time and manual labor while efficiently protecting the local wildlife. 

Hazelwood Forestry harvests blue gum (eucalyptus) and pine trees from the Hancock Victoria Plantations in the Strzelecki Ranges of the Latrobe Valley. Koalas, which are naturally extremely fond of the blue gum trees, are thereby in danger of being killed during tree felling operations. What was once an arduous, lengthy manual process is being improved through the bird’s-eye views of modern aerial technologies. 

“Koala spotting—we do it every day before that day’s harvest,” said Eloise Cluning. “We actually capture and translocate koalas under a permit from DELWP (Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning). Most of our work is koala management with Hancocks who have been on the front foot in managing koalas. We are really ramping up how to manage and protect them in forestry operations.”

The primary danger these animals face is man-made, and it seems fitting that companies such as Hazelwood Forestry attempt to use man-made technologies to help assuage the problem we’ve collectively created ourselves. “They are at risk of being felled with the tree and processed with the tree, or flicked out of adjoining trees with trees being felled,” said Cluning. “They are not threatened in Victoria but it’s important we protect them and move them elsewhere.”

The problem is that even on foot, spotting koalas amidst the dense topography and thick foliage is a difficult task. “Seeing a koala in pine trees is very difficult,” explained Cluning. “Even with the young pine, you’ve got such a dense canopy it’s very hard to see. The drones have helped in that regard.”

It’s the drone’s thermal imaging, specifically, that’s made this problem substantially smaller and allowed Hazelwood Forestry to act quicker and more accurately, with the end result protecting koalas from unnecessary death or injury. While drones have become a very welcome helping hand, however, the process is still imperfect.

“We have to stop the flight to check out every heat feature,” said Cluning. “Every heat signal looks the same to begin with—you need more time to identify it as a wombat, a koala, or a bird. Then you have to do some planning.”

As for the drone now being routinely deployed by Cluning’s company, it was handpicked specifically for its ability to withstand harsh winds, and is capable of reaching 40 mph (65 kph) while weighing 22 pounds (10 kg). While not perfect in terms of handling, it seemed like the best possible option for Hazelwood Forestry. “It’s difficult to move around, and is probably the biggest off-the-shelf registered drone you can buy,” said Cluning. 

While koalas have to watch for tree fellers, the biggest threat Cluning and her company face are local eagles unenthused by the presence of a drone. “A few have checked out the drone,” said Cluning. “It’s a bit too big and noisy for some; you have to be a brave eagle to take it on. One actually threw the drone into a tree. Eagles were circling as we retrieved the drone.”

It’s a wild, indifferent world out there, with our presence and technological infusions only complicating and obfuscating what’s natural and what isn’t. Fortunately, there are morally driven people like the Clunings out there, which make a serious attempt at reducing their footprint by taking advantage of the affordable, practical technology so beneficial in cases like this one.