For June’s Community Spotlight, we are beyond excited to announce our first female and humanitarian expert, Alicia Amerson, the CEO and founder of AliMoSphere.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you became involved in the drone industry.
Initially when I did my research at Scripps Institution of Oceanography I wanted to use drones to measure whale-watching boats distance from whales during a tour and video the behavior of the whale in relation to the boat. At the time I need a FAA Part 333 Pilot’s License, as a Master’s student I did not have the time nor the money to invest in that level of training.
As luck would have it, after graduation a colleague of mine at Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia, Dr. Fredrik Christiansen, was flying drones to capture images of mother whales and their calves to measure their body condition. He needed an extra volunteer so I flew to Exmouth, WA and that started my experience in using drones for conservation research. The following season I joined Fred’s team on another expedition and we used the DJI Inspire 2 with the Zenmuse 5 set up - and it was really awesome to see the photographs we captured with the more expensive technology. We’ve published this research in the Marine Ecology Press Series.
The goal of conservation research is to be as minimally invasive to the animals. We want to see them in their natural state instead of the traditional National Geographic photograph where the animal is making eye contact with the photographer. We want to do as little harm as possible. Drones are allowing researchers to fly from seaside cliffs and other land-based stations which provides minimal disturbance to marine wildlife, but can have impacts on terrestrial wildlife such as birds. When boats are in the water there is acoustic or sound that causes disturbance to wildlife, so seaside cliffs and land-based stations are ideal for large whale studies.
After returning home to California I noticed an uptick in the use of drones on the coastline. This alarmed me because we have seabirds, seals, and sea lions on our coast that can often be disturbed by humans. With drones adding another level of disturbance to these animal, I wanted to take action. I did so by convening a group of wildlife experts, government agencies, NGOs, academic and industry experts to design a best practice guide for flying drones around marine wildlife.
I also dove into the issues of manned aircraft aerial surveys to study marine mammals after learning this was the number one cause of mortality to biologists. Using drones keeps researchers out of the sky and is much more affordable and can be collect data much faster. There are some projects where manned aircraft are essential for surveys, but drones are capable of the task and mitigate the risk to human life.
I’ve compiled all this information and wrote a book that will be released at the end of summer called: Six-Word Lessons for Drone Pilots and Outdoor Enthusiasts, 100 Lessons to Make Drone Flights Safe, Ethical and Green for Wildlife and Humans. It will be available online and in paperback.
How did your company decide that drone education and developing best practices were a viable solution and worth the investment?
We have turned our best practice guide into an online course for drone entrepreneurs and outdoor enthusiasts who want to green their drone operations. We know people want to do the right thing, and sometimes do not understand the full implications of their actions.
Through stories and outreach people take action and implement simple steps to reducing their footprint.
We use various science communication techniques that bridge research, technology, and education with our client in mind. I am a marine biologist and project manager - I deeply understand that science can be intimidating. I want to encourage more pilots to approach flight planning as a method to an outcome or result. When using a project management hat or scientist hat we can hypothesize what we think will happen and design elements that we can test and provide a result.
In turn we can use these results to improve sustainability and effectiveness of our flight protocols, checklists, and communication for all drone pilots by sharing more stories with each other and ensuring we log each flight to continual test or protocols.
How did you come across DroneDeploy and why was it ultimately the solution you decided to move forward with?
I learned about DroneDeploy when researching mapping software. I wanted to see how I might be able to help a client map a protected estuary in San Diego. As a result I found DroneDeploy. I’ve used DroneDeploy to map coastal areas in San Diego for erosion and harbor seal counts. I will use DroneDeploy this fall at the Tijuana Estuary. I am working with WILDCOAST, a non-profit, protecting the estuary. We will use the mapping software to conduct a survey to find marine pollution hotspots. This is an international issue and the information we collect will be used to integrate systems to remove waste and inform policy makers and funders about the specific areas where trash is accumulating in the wetlands system.
What is your biggest challenge at the moment?
Our biggest challenge is finding affordable ways for our clients to implement drones and drone software into their research projects. Although drones are coming down in cost most of our clients are NGOs. That means they are submitting a project proposal to a funding organization. They wait for months to see if the hours of writing a grant application is accepted. There may be many rounds of this until finally one day my client receives an email with an approval or rejection for funding.
This is a painful and long process for all of us. And many times the grant funding does not supplement for the time and effort, nor the livelihood of the researcher. Conservation research is. Especially when researching oceanic wildlife - we use boats and have a crew to drive the boat and a crew to fly a drone which costs money for fuel and time. When a NGO finally gets approval of funds and makes the initial investment in a platform - upgrades in technology happen so quickly they might end up buying equipment that is outdated before they see an ROI. There’s not a huge market for NGO’s to trade in this equipment for new equipment.
Fundraising is necessary - so companies that are B-Corps really make a difference for NGO’s that research marine wildlife and our coastal areas. I advocate for corporations to do more for the NGO research community and work closely in partnership to help better understand our changing climate and world.
What advice do you have for beginners?
We love newbie drone pilots because they are ready to soak up new information. We are focused on bringing research to drone pilots. Our mission is to Stand Up For What We Stand On - and this means being good science communicators. Since we are a team of scientists, we want to make sure the most current research is available in an easy to digest platform. We love being a resource to drone pilots. So if you’re a beginner in the drone space and relate with the “do-gooder” or “eco-friendly” applications of drones we have several ways to connect and work with us.
- One thing new drone pilots and outdoor enthusiast can do is join our free Facebook Group: The Social Innovation Drone Tribe.
- We host a weekly show on Facebook Live where we talk about drones, conservation, wildlife, and project management.
- We also launched an online course for drone pilots to build flight plans that reduce wildlife disturbance, benefit humanity and green the drone footprint. In the course you get flight checklists, a Facebook community of pilots, and free monthly coaching calls.
- You can book a strategy session with me by going to our website and clicking the “work with me” tab. In a 90-minute strategy session we develop specific field checklists that help drone pilots fly safely, sustainably, ethically, and responsibly.
What is something you wish you knew as you added drones to your workflow/company?
I wish I knew more about marketing. The industry is fairly new - but reaching the target audience is difficult and can be costly for a startup. With technology at all time lows anyone can buy a drone and there are little regulations or guidelines to make drone pilots savvy at flying.
The issue for wildlife is that not everyone knows that they may be impacting wildlife when they fly.
They may think it’s a beautiful scene to show birds flying off when the drone approaches and put some meditation music for folks to watch on Facebook.
In reality, the birds that flew away may have been protecting their young in a nest from predators, and without a parent protecting the young it is vulnerable.
Other seabirds may be feeding on small shellfish in the sand during low tide. If the birds are scared away during this time of day, they have to wait until low tide comes again 12 hours later. Imagine if you had to wait 12 hours between each meal and during one meal you did not get to finish - you might be hungry and if this happens multiple times per week you would get tired, sick, and may even eventually die from the chronic stress.