BY: ALEX BROWN
The lungs of the earth are deteriorating under the heat of illegal industry, claiming approximately 80,000 acres of rainforest per day—or about a football field, per second, per day.
Between the ranks of illegal loggers, miners and other industries stands Carlos Castaneda—a tanned, heavy-set man hidden behind a full beard and large reflective sunglasses. Castaneda’s official position is a mouthful: the Amazon Basin Conservation Association’s Los Amigos Conservancy Concession’s coordinator. The main facet of Castaneda’s job is fairly simple to understand, though much more difficult to execute. With a small team of five, Castaneda is responsible for identifying and locating any illegal and destructive industry encroaching on his land—a rolling 145,000 hectares (560 square miles) of thick bush. There are no paved roads to access the terrain, flanking the “world-famous” Manu National Park in southeastern Peru.
Carlos Castaneda with the drone that patrols the 560 square miles he is responsible for protecting.
For a small team with limited access, this is a daunting task, though a young student from North Carolina recently proposed a solution that could prove vital to Castaneda’s efforts. Max Messinger, a graduate student from Wake Forest University majoring in biology, invented a drone specialized for rainforest patrol. The drone, which looks like a model plane rather than a typical quadcopter, flies on autopilot at an altitude of approximately 300 feet and patrols an airspace that spans over 10 miles. The drones have a wingspan of three feet and weigh in under five pounds.
The lightweight drone designed by Max Messinger can fly to an altitude of 300 feet and patrols airspace spanning over 10 miles.
One of the major benefits of the drone is its ability to fly below the cloud line. Though satellite images were previously used to detect large-scale operations like clear-cutting, these drones allow Castaneda to spot smaller-scale operations like gold mining. Not to mention that, according to Castaneda, clear-skies in this region only come about six days a year.
Messinger’s contribution means a giant leap forward for the Los Amigos Conservation Concession, which also oversees the protection of the Los Amigos River’s watershed. According to NPR, “illegal gold miners in this part of Peru area have reduced tens of thousands of acres of rain forests to strips of gravel.” These drones are able to program specific GPS coordinates for the machine to explore and capture these atrocities on the camera attached to the plane’s undercarriage. A secondary camera is attached to the nose of the plane for extra visuals.
Messinger’s drones will be able to locate illegal gold miners who have reduced thousands of acres of Peruvian rainforest to gravel.
This rainforest is home to 12 globally threatened species, including spider monkeys and jaguars, according to amazonconservation.org. The magnitude and diversity of wildlife in the region is staggering. Plundering these natural resources and habitats will impact human life in a way that exceeds the foresight of money-grabbing loggers and gold miners. Until the environment is valued with the same alacrity as economic interests, Castaneda and his team—including Messinger and his drones—will remain among the gatekeepers of the world’s most fruitful landscape.