Are Drones the Future of Conservation?

From Scuba Diver to Drone Operator with Steve Roest. Steve has over 20 years of experience in conservation and is one of the co-founders of Shadowview Foundation, a company specializing in UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) – or drones – and using them for conservation. He is also an UAV Operator and has been involved in projects throughout the world.

Steve Roest operating a Shadow Rotor UAV (Shadowview Foundation)

Steve Roest operating a Shadow Rotor UAV (Shadowview Foundation)

How did you get into conservation?

That started back in the mid 1990s. I did a scuba diving course in Kenya and I was very taken with the environment in which I found myself and that led slowly to me developing through dive master to diving instructor so that I could teach diving and dive as often as possible. While I was doing that, I began to see more and more often how much damage was being done to the ocean, how much it was being ruined by over-fishing and destructive human practices.

My Scuba diving led me to various conservation projects around the world. Later, I became a trustee for the Shark Trust and while there I was approached by the UK coordinator for Sea Shepherd conservation society and became UK director of Sea Shepherd. I went to Antarctica in 2008 with Captain Paul Watson – the founder of Sea shepherd – on the Steve Irwin. We were involved in chasing the Japanese whaling fleet out of Antarctica – this year the international court ruled Japanese whaling activities there illegal, so all the work that’s been done has proved that individuals can make a difference in conservation.

During the Antarctic campaign, Captain Watson asked me if I would be prepared to be Chief Executive Officer of their international operations, which I did, for 4 years. During that time we did multiple campaigns all over the world in all sorts of fields of conservation.

How did you get to Shadowview Foundation?

In 2011, Sea Shepherd was running helicopters off of their ships and they were very expensive to run. Somebody came to us one day with a box and in that box was a thing that looked like a model airplane and he said “well, this is a drone and this is the future of conservation”. It seemed to me that he might be onto something. The idea sowed a seed in my mind and the following year Laurens de Groot – who later became my co-founder at Shadowview – and I began looking deeper and deeper into using drones in conservation and we went to South Africa to help support an anti-rhino poaching organization.

I became Executive Director of SPOTS International and we used drones to protect rhino. Shadowview was born shortly after that – we realized that there was an opportunity not just to do little bits and pieces here and there but that this technology could make a huge, huge impact for good in conservation and humanitarian aid relief.

Shadow Ranger Drone © Shadowview Foundation ¦ Roelof de Vries

Shadow Ranger Drone © Shadowview Foundation ¦ Roelof de Vries

So Shadowview is all about providing drone services…

We see ourselves primarily as a provider of drones. It’s a new technology and nobody is doing it in the way we are. But we also work on other technology sectors. As we work with the kind of people that build drones we are also finding there are lots of other technologies that are becoming much less expensive than they were a year or two ago – and where it is legal and supports good conservation and humanitarian work – we also want to provide that to other non-profits and NGOs that need help.

What is the favourite part of your job?

I feel very privileged with my job; I do what I love most of the time. I suppose I´m best at doing things from behind a desk so I don´t get as much opportunity to go out in the field as much as I´d like to. But the best part it´s always been going out in field and taking part in missions.

What do you think were the fundamental skills which allowed you to have the career progression you had and to move between different fields in conservation?

Well I didn´t start in conservation. I started in the commercial world. Back in 1989 I started a car import business from the US and we restored old classic cars. And then I was involved in refurbishing property and I worked in a company in Spain. So I think one of the advantages that I´ve had was having a good solid understanding of commercial practices. That is a particularly useful skill for non-profits. They need to be in the market generating funds from individual donors or organizations.  

Photograph taken by an overflying drone © Shadowview Foundation

Photograph taken by an overflying drone © Shadowview Foundation

What advice would you give to young conservationists that might be interested in working with drones in the future?

I think that for somebody to work in the UAV sector they have to be interested in flight – I would advise people to try out a few model airplanes to get a feel for that kind of thing and see if it´s something that excites them. Whatever things you do in life I think it´s important that you do something that you enjoy. If you can find something that motivates you and excites you then that´s a wonderful thing to pursue. If you want to use drones in conservation – first of all see if you are interested in drone technology and then just get as good at it as you possibly can.

The same rules would apply to whatever field you want to get into in conservation. Never give up on your dream and always try to do something good. I think it´s important to remember – individuals can make a difference. However hard it seems, and however overwhelming the problems are that we face – you can make a change – and just try and be part of that change and enjoy yourself doing it.

When an opportunity arises, have a quick think about it and if it looks good – grab it. One thing my mother said to me – she is no longer with us unfortunately – and it was hugely valuable in my life was “Never look back and say – If only”. So if an opportunity comes up, have a crack at it. It doesn´t always work out – I´ve had a few failures for sure – and you just have to ride over those, learn from them and just get on with it. So take the opportunity when it arises, that´s my advice.

What is your favourite song?

Knights of Cynodia by Muse would be my favourite song.

About the author



This post was written by Conservation Careers Blogger Marta Cálix. Marta is doing an Internship with Flora and Fauna International working on their Global Trees Campaign. She comes from Portugal and has a special interest in threatened species reintroduction’s and protected area management.

Careers Advice, Interviews, Senior Level, Conservation Enterprises, Communicator, Marine Conservation Jobs