The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has tapped the usage of drones in an effort to give an endangered species hope for survival.
The endangered species in question is the black-footed ferret, which is affected by the declining population of prairie dogs. Prairie dogs are the main source of food for the ferrets, and the underground burrows that they dig out serve as shelter for the ferrets. However, the prairie dog population is likewise decreasing because of the sylvatic plague, which is a disease that is being propagated by fleas and rats.
To counter the effect, biologists have developed and distributed a vaccine for the sylvatic plague. The vaccine, which is mixed in with bait and dropped in certain points along pre-determined routes, would help the prairie dogs develop immunity to the sylvatic plague.
However, the process of walking through the routes by foot and dropping vaccine-laced bait by hand is very time consuming, with biologists only able to release about 150 to 300 doses every hour.
This is where the drones come in.
An environmental assessment (PDF) released by the Fish and Wildlife Service for the use of unmanned aerial systems in delivering sylvatic plague vaccines to prairie dogs stated that up to 10,000 acres of land will be covered by drones per year. The Fish and Wildlife Service will be providing the vaccine-laced bait and the perimeter boundaries of prairie dog colonies to a private contractor, which would be operating the drones to deliver the vaccines to the specified areas.
To carry and deploy the vaccine, a "glorified gumball machine" has been devised to be used by the drones, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Randy Machett. The device will be fitted to the drones, which will be using GPS systems to dispense the vaccines at intervals of 30 feet in three directions.
The vaccine will be injected in peanut butter, which will be smeared on M&M candies. According to tests, this treat is the one that prairie dogs are very attracted to, as a dye that has been added to the mix often shows up on the whiskers of the animals.
The actual type of the drone that will be involved in the project has not yet been determined, as the proposal has not yet received the final approval. However, according to Machett, using drones is the cheapest and fastest way to distribute the vaccine, which should mean that it will soon be given the green light.