Education, Inspiration

How DJI Drones Helped Bring Down an Illegal Fishing Operation


Next week, I’ll be speaking at this year’s Drone World Expo in California. I’ll be presenting a case study from Sea Shepherd‘s Operation Driftnet, an ocean-conservation campaign from earlier this year that spanned the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Drones became a crucial part of the campaign, launching our conservation and filmmaking efforts to new heights. The campaign made history when the Chinese government intervened to help shut down the illegal fishing boats we chased. Here’s how we did it, and why.

What Are the High Seas?

The High Seas
The high seas are navy blue in this image from National Geographic

The high seas are also known as “international waters or mare liberum (meaning “free sea,” if you fancy). International waters are known for things like gambling ships — home to activities that would otherwise be illegal. Operations on the high seas fall under an agreement called the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (we call it UNCLOS — as in oon-klose), to which 167 nations are party. In the handy graphic to the right, you can see how UNCLOS defines jurisdiction zones. This is just the tip of the iceberg — there are multiple layers of ocean management at play at any given point on the globe — despite a reputation as a lawless wild west, the high seas are actually quite heavily regulated, especially when it comes to fishing. This is all well and good, except the high seas are big, which presents a problem for enforcement. On most of our high seas missions, it’s highly unlikely we’ll ever see any other ships, save for military groups running war games or cargo ships.

History and Challenges of Drone Use

Sea Shepherd has been experimenting with drones for years. Back in 2012, Sea Shepherd used a drone made by the now-defunct Kansas-based Hangar 18; today DJI Phantoms are the go-to solution for deployment because they’re relatively inexpensive, easy to fly, and extremely dependable. Operating at sea, one of the biggest challenges we have to overcome is ship-based deployment — most fixed-wing drones require some sort of launch system, like a sled or a slingshot to get them in the air. Landing is a different challenge altogether. With the number of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) UAVs coming on the market, I hope the new endurance breakthroughs from combining fixed-wing and rotor aircraft will soon make their way into our toolkits (and also hope that we all don’t get mired in Kickstarter drama).

Increasing regulatory enforcement is another issue that most UAV operators are dealing with globally; as more people deploy drones, more rules will be put forth to govern their use. The 2012 drone use near Antarctica prompted someone to write about the future of UAVs for vigilante conservation, which to me sounds like the lovechild of Zorro and Captain Planet went rogue with drones, and some terse words from the Australian Antarctic Division — and that was four years ago!

Flying a DJI Phantom from a Zodiac boat.
Flying a DJI Phantom from a Zodiac boat.

High Seas Challenges

Regulations aside, there are quite a few challenges when flying from the open ocean. There’s no return-to-home functionality, because “home” is wherever you took off from — likely to be an empty patch of ocean by the time you land; you almost always have to hand-launch and hand-recover; salt air destroys metal; high winds and turbulence created by the superstructure of ships can create problems; if you land anywhere but the ship, you’re almost sure to lose you drone; and so on. In addition to the usual daytime challenges, we had a whole host of new problems flying at night (which I’d never done, since it’s strictly forbidden in the States). As you can see in the photo above, every diode on our drones was blacked out so it wouldn’t interfere with the images — this made flying and recovering particularly difficult.

Campaign Overview

So, here’s what happened: “In January of 2016, while patrolling the South Indian Ocean for illegal fishing vessels, the Steve Irwin came across a fleet of ships engaged in the illegal practice of fishing with driftnets. Banned since 1992, this style of fishing is notorious for its indiscriminate killing of wildlife.” Basically, it’s a series of nets that are sewn together, draped in the ocean, and catch virtually anything that touches them. The ones we encountered were ten miles long, in some cases.

When we encountered the first set of ships — there were six in all — they immediately dropped their nets and ran. Over the course of a month, we collected photo, video, and physical evidence that would eventually be compiled into a report and submitted to regulatory agencies, like those mentioned above. The ships we were pursuing quickly began dismantling and attempting to conceal their identities — they folded their flags, removed their name plates, and pushed their fishing gear overboard. It became imperative that we gathered all the evidence we could, before it was gone forever.

Photo data was compiled into a report like this.
Photo data was compiled into a report like this.

In the nets we retrieved, there was all sorts of sea life — sharks, dolphins, swordfish, seals, endangered tuna. One of the most memorable images from the campaign, for me, is the photo below, which shows one of the crew members holding a dolphin that had drowned in the net.


Drones for Filmmaking

We had brought DJI Phantom 3 drones with us to shoot video that would later be compiled in a broadcast television show — during preparation for the campaign, this was our only goal. Drones are a great way to get an outside perspective of the ship, produce some of the only stable footage we get while we’re at sea, and deliver breathtaking views. With the narrative that began to unspool on this campaign, however, the aerial views our drones delivered gave us some truly awe-inspiring perspective on the story. In the photo below, you’re looking at just two-and-a-half miles of driftnet curling around our 195-foot-long ship. From the storytelling perspective, the aerial footage from the drones provided a way for our audience to truly understand the scope of what we were dealing with — even I hadn’t wrapped my head around the true scope of the problem until I shot this image.
Driftnet curling around a 195-foot-long ship

Drones for Evidence Gathering

Have you ever wondered what that little “Video Caption” option in the DJI Go app does? As it turns out, it’s super useful for conservation purposes (and cool YouTube videos). When the option is on, every video you capture gets an accompanying file that contains all your telemetry information — most importantly, GPS coordinates. Grab an app like DashWare to bake the telemetry data into your video, and you’re off to the races. With geo-tagged video, we could catalog exactly where particular evidence was gathered. (I’ve found that the GPS coordinates don’t reliably show up in EXIF data for photos, but I don’t know why.)

DJI Go Flight Screen

With geo-tagged photo and video, we could document different aspects of the ships — their identifiers, their positions (were they in a marine-protected area, for example?), the animals they had on their decks, the fishing gear they had, and other critical elements that would help build a strong case for the reports. We cross-referenced the evidence we were gathering with satellite data to help build out the narrative. All of this went down in an area where other vessels were searching for the wreckage of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 (MH370), so it was all a little spooky — you can see in the graphic below that the area the fishing vessels were operating in was otherwise pretty sparsely populated.

Our Approach

Once we were tasked with using the drones for evidence gathering, we had to quickly come up with a methodology that allowed us to make the most of each flight. If something was happening, we’d have to deploy before that activity ended — for example, if fishing gear was being removed or destroyed on deck. Most often, the wind was gusting, normally around 20 knots, and the ship was underway somewhere around 10 knots; this made launching and recovering more exciting than it needed to be.

Flying with an observer.
Flying with an observer.

Initially, this meant flying with at least one observer at all times. Since the Phantom 3 only allows one operator, I had to focus on maneuvering to spots that yielded the best view, and since our ship and the other ships were not physically close together, this meant that I was sometimes flying extremely far away, with our ship moving in one direction, the target ship moving in another, and the swell of the sea and the overall weather affecting us all. As you can see in the above photo, we used the DBS Mods panel antenna to help us get extra range out of the stock signal. Since the ship has a small weather station onboard, we would receive regular wind-speed, wind-direction, and radar data updates from the bridge while in flight.

Drone Flying with a full team
Flying with a full team.

As the flight stakes grew larger, more crew joined our flight crew. At times, we would have two observers watching line-of-sight while a third monitored the camera feed. This was particularly useful if we also had a small boat in the water. This way, communication could be facilitated between our bridge and the small boat — the observer on the screen could radio to both of them to relay information in real time. The flying became increasingly technical over time; I feel like we really pushed the boundaries of what is ultimately a consumer product.

Flight Examples

Here is a sample of what our flights actually looked like. In the example below, you can see that on this 18-minute flight, the landing point was about five miles away from the starting position. We launched with the ship moving at about ten miles per hour, sped ahead and took some photos, then rendezvoused with the drone. You’ll also notice that there was absolutely nothing around but open ocean.

Example of a typical flight.
An example of a typical flight.

What’s Next?

It’s no surprise that there are lots of different approaches to drone-assisted conservation being talked about — according to Audubon Magazine, “Light aircraft crashes are the number-one killer of wildlife biologists.” Air Shepherd, for example (which has a startlingly similar name to Sea Shepherd), is a privately funded effort that has developed its own UAV platform for fighting elephant and rhino poaching; government agencies like the US Geological Survey are using UAVs to do wildlife counts; and, of course, there’s SnotBot. I’m working personally with a group of students to help innovate an inexpensive glider that can be used for conservation work, but as of now, there are no easy solutions. As power-to-weight ratios improve, prices drop, and the FAA decides how it wants to handle nonprofits and researchers, I expect we’ll continue to see incredible breakthroughs in the ways we protect wildlife around the world.

Gavin Garrison recently returned from shooting six-months’ worth of drone footage on the high seas in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. He has produced two seasons of the Emmy-nominated reality show Whale Wars, as well as Whale Wars: A Commander Rises (Discovery).