Flying home: using drones to care for country

A team of Indigenous rangers caring for one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth is pioneering the use of drones to monitor its health, with the assistance of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

The Yuku Baja Muliku Rangers are believed to be the first Indigenous ranger group in Queensland to receive Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) certification to use drones commercially. They have purchased a craft and will soon take to the skies to survey their country, which spans 22,500 hectares around Archer Point on Cape York.

“A drone carrying a small camera will enable rangers to view areas they have never seen before due to inaccessible terrain, as well as offshore islands and coral reefs,” Marine Park Authority Indigenous Partnerships project manager and drone pilot Andrew Denzin said.

“It will also allow them to map their country in greater detail and monitor any changes over time. Aerial photographs can identify features as small as individual mangroves and coral colonies.”

The land and sea country of the Yuku Baja Muliku people includes portions of two World Heritage-listed areas: the Wet Tropics and the Great Barrier Reef.

Archer Point is a crucial stretch of the marine highway for green turtles travelling to and from their Raine Island nesting grounds – the largest in the southern hemisphere. The waters also offer sanctuary to the threatened hawksbill turtle, as well as dugongs.

“Our connection to our sea country, and respect for the animals that we share these waters with, ensures we do all we can to protect them. Our care is unwavering,” Yuku Baja Muliku Rangers operations manager Mick Hale said. He and his wife Larissa established the ranger team in 2007.

In 2013, the Yuku Baja Muliku people developed a Traditional Use of Marine Resources Agreement (TUMRA), accredited by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Queensland Government, to enhance the management of their sea country, which lies within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

The following year, the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection funded the construction of the Archer Point Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre. It’s a labour-intensive operation and the rangers themselves shoulder most of the running expenses.

Despite the pressure, the Yuku Baja Muliku Rangers are always up for a fresh challenge. When the Marine Park Authority invited them to trial the use of drones as a TUMRA field management tool, they were quick to accept.

“The potential of this technology really excites us,” Mr Hale said. “We foresee using drones in many aspects of our land and sea country management.”

Mr Denzin, who has spent the past 12 months testing the aerial mapping capabilities of small (1.3 kg) drones, was confident the rangers would fly with the idea.

“A drone can support a range of environmental monitoring activities, including surveys of marine debris, seagrass beds, coral reefs, beach erosion, mangroves, the impact of severe weather events and human activity, as well as turtle and dugong activity, and seabird populations,” he said.

“They can also be used to record cultural heritage sites, and video traditional activities still being undertaken today.”

Drones can map areas for a fraction of the cost involved in conventional aerial mapping.

“It costs $1000 to $2000 per hour to hire a helicopter,” Mr Denzin said. “A serviceable drone costs around $1200. It’s basically a flying laptop with auto-pilot capabilities.”

Mr Denzin travelled to Archer Point last week to help launch the Yuku Baja Muliku drone on its maiden flight and train three of the rangers to pilot the craft and utilise mapping applications. Two of these rangers will now undertake a CASA-accredited remote (drone) pilot’s licence course.

“This is all about capacity building,” Mr Denzin said. “Drones will enhance the TUMRA program. They will literally expand the horizon of ranger groups caring for land and sea country, including the Reef.”