Research Project - Drones for Surveying Wild Orangutans

A project by: Cameron Goodhead


WE RAISED £2,028

from 54 donors

This project received donations on Wed 18 Mar 2020
Help fund a ground-breaking project that evaluates the use of drones for surveying orangutans.



The Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) has recently been declared a critically endangered species by the IUCN, as a result of an estimated 86% population decline over just three generations (Ancrenaz et al. 2016). The main threats causing this decline are hunting, forest fires, and loss of habitat as a result of extreme levels of deforestation, mainly for oil palm plantations. To monitor the effect of these threats on populations and whether current conservation efforts are succeeding, it is vital to accurately assess populations of orangutans across the rainforest.

However, as orangutans are rare, solitary animals, they can be troublesome to find in the jungle, making monitoring populations by counting individual orangutans difficult! As a result, researchers count the sleeping 'nests' they build each night and use these to estimate population densities of areas instead. Unfortunately, these nest surveys are undertaken on foot across difficult terrain, and therefore take a long time to complete and are restricted to areas that can be easily reached by walking. This means that huge areas of forest that contain orangutans go completely unsurveyed, and all too often forest areas are cleared before they can be assessed properly. 


Our project will test, develop, and evaluate two innovative and exciting methods that use drones as a replacement for the standard ground surveys, which means the surveys could potentially be undertaken much faster, across larger areas and at lower costs.

We will fit the drones with both standard cameras, to see if they can spot nests from the sky instead, and thermal cameras, to see if we can spot individual orangutans in the canopy at night using their heat signature.

If these methods are successful, it will revolutionise how we monitor existing orangutan populations, allow us to survey new areas that are at risk of being deforested for tropical agriculture such as oil palm, and help establish new protected areas to prevent the orangutans there being lost forever.

Who am I?

My name is Cameron Goodhead and I am a Masters by Research student at the University of Exeter, where I recently completed my undergraduate degree. For my 3rd year dissertation, I travelled out to Borneo alongside one of my lecturers and Borneo Nature Foundation (BNF), and collected data on orangutan nest building behaviour, with particular interest in the tree species they choose to build nests in. On this trip, I conducted numerous orangutan nest surveys, and can attest to how time-consuming and hard they can be! I also saw my first wild orangutans, which inspired me to do as much as possible to help save this majestic species from extinction. As a result, I will be heading back out to Borneo at the start of 2020 for my masters research, collaborating with BNF to complete this exciting project, which we believe could be a game-changer for orangutan conservation.

What will I be doinG?

For this project, I will be living in the jungle, together with two Indonesian field researchers, working day and night to study how effectively drones can be used to monitor orangutan populations. We will complete both ground and aerial nest surveys across the forest and see how the detection rates of nests for each survey type differs. We will also evaluate the best method for flying the drones to ensure the maximum number of nests will be spotted. Previous studies on using drones to survey Sumatran orangutan nests found a positive correlation between aerial-spotted nests and ground-spotted nests (Wich et al. 2015). This is an exciting indication of the potential for this technology. However, as a preliminary study, it did not test this method with Bornean orangutans or whether population densities can be calculated from the data, which is what we will be researching in this project.

For the thermal surveys, we will venture out into the forest and locate orangutans, follow them until they make their nest for the night, then fly the drone over the canopy at a safe distance. We will see whether the thermal camera can pick up the heat signature of the orangutan and whether the heat signature can differentiate orangutans from other species. A previous preliminary study found that wild orangutans can be spotted using thermal cameras on drones fairly easily (Burke et al. 2019). But again, further work needs to be done on this methodology before it can be used. This project aims to test how accurately they can be spotted in different conditions, and whether population densities can be calculated using this method.

The ultimate aim for this project is to use the data collected to calculate the population density estimate for each method. I will then compare the accuracy of the estimates produced by each survey and evaluate which method is most effective and how to use it for the best results.

If, as we suspect, these methods are successful, I will work alongside BNF to survey a new area of rainforest for orangutans, an area that is completely unprotected and at risk of deforestation. If we can quickly identify orangutan strongholds in this area using the drones, we can use the evidence to work alongside local authorities to designate protected areas and prevent further destruction.

Where will the money go?

The money raised will go directly towards the costs of the research, such as funding the purchasing of a DJI Mavic Pro 2 drone and additional equipment such as spare batteries. We are hoping to receive grants that will cover the costs of the thermal camera, but lack additional funding to cover the costs of the drones.

If the target for the fundraiser is exceeded, it will mean we may be able to purchase an additional drone, and double the efficiency with which we can conduct the surveys, allowing the project to be completed faster!

I will be covering costs of travel, accommodation and personal supplies myself, however, as the equipment required for this project is expensive, I cannot fund it all myself, which is why I need your help!

Images and video

A team member from the BNF drone team using drones to detect peat swamp fires.

An orangutan mother and juvenile along the riverbank. Picture taken on my trip to Borneo last summer.

A mother and infant orangutan feeding in the canopy. Picture taken on my trip to Borneo last summer.

Stare-off with a large flanged-male Orangutan. Photo taken on my trip to Borneo last summer.

Previous preliminary studies have found that orangutans can be picked up in the canopy using thermal cameras on drones. This project aims to improve the methodology and determine whether it can be used for population surveys. (Photo from Burke et al. 2019 Successful observation of orangutans in the wild with thermal-equipped drones)

A photo of an orangutan using one of the nests that they build each night for sleeping. Photo from

Find us here

I will be starting a blog up when I arrive which will be emailed to all backers to keep up with the progress of the project. I will also post as regularly as I can (although there's not much WiFi in the Bornean rainforest!) on twitter (@CamGoodhead) and on my wildlife photography Instagram account (@camwildphotography).

If you add me on facebook as well, I will be posting some updates on there!

To find out more about the organisation I will be working with, and to see the amazing work they do, go to this website: or follow them on Instagram (@borneo.nature), Twitter (@BorneoNatureFdn) or Facebook.

Help us succeed!

Any size donation would be much appreciated, and will go a long way to supporting vital orangutan conservation and research, with regular updates on the success of the project you are supporting. Even if you cannot donate anything, sharing this project to a wide audience on facebook, twitter or even chatting about it to a bloke down the pub will be massively helpful and greatly appreciated! Any increase in the awareness of the threats that orangutans face, and what you can do to help can increase the likelihood that we will help keep this amazing species from extinction.

Whatever we do to help protect orangutans will inevitably also help to conserve the rainforest they inhabit, so if you have been troubled by recent pictures of wildfires ravaging Borneo’s rainforest, or loggers demolishing the rainforest to create oil palm plantations, this is something practical you can do today to make a difference.