By Emma Diltz
AREA DE CONSERVACIÓN GUANACASTE, Costa Rica — With the whirring of blades and the glowing of green lights, the Phantom 2 Vision-Plus drone sped into the evening sky, piloted by park guard and forest firefighter Sergio Cascante.
The drone was introduced to the Area de Conservación Guanacaste fire protection program in spring 2015 by University of Missouri students. A donor bought the drone for the ACG, but the students’ job was to teach the firefighters how to use it.
Trained and ready, Cascante remained on standby throughout the 2015 fire season, ready to take his drone-flying skills into the field. But with an “atypical fire season,” Cascante said the drone didn’t see any flames, except when the firefighters set controlled burns.
“It was the lowest number (of fires) in the history of the ACG,” Cascante said, displaying a chart that showed eight total fires throughout the sectors of the park, along with the hectares of land affected.
Controlled burns, which they do every January or February, are used to give historical perspective to visitors, continue a long-term experiment for scientists and build a defensive line against forest fires that might invade the park, according to Johan Martinez, an ecotourism guide at the ACG.
During the rainy season, ACG officials found other ways to put the drone to good use.
Cascante got aerial footage of olive ridley sea turtles on a mass migration laying eggs on the beach in Pacific coastal town of Ostional, a phenomenon seen in very few parts of the world. The team was able to supervise the situation to make sure no one bothered the nesting turtles.
The department also aided the members of the National Emergency Commission with proper earthquake evacuation drills by flying over streets of downtown San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital city.
“They used it to film people coming out of the buildings to see how they were evacuated, how bystanders reacted and how vehicles were as they drove by,” he said. “The results were that it showed lack of coordination, so it will help them fix the problem.”
Although it’s used in various complex situations, flying the drone isn’t a simple task.
Cascante and other trainees went through training to learn the proper procedures to navigate the technology in strong winds and intense circumstances.
“You have to practice a lot to get a really good shot (with the drone),” he said. “If you don’t want the camera to move very fast, you have to practice a lot because it’s very sensitive. You have to have experience to fly it in (these situations).”
In addition to the firefighters the group of students from MU trained, the already qualified ones continue to educate new staff on the inner workings of flying the drone.
As the drone gains more attention with various projects, Cascante said he hopes they will be able to obtain another one that’s more advanced, with a 360-degree rotation camera. This way, he said, it will make acquiring images easier, as they won’t have to navigate the drone quite as much.
With the dry season in full swing, Cascante said although he would like to use the drone, he hopes that they don’t have any fires to use it on.
“We’re expecting a large fire season because of El Niño, but we’re hoping we don’t have any,” Cascante said. “But if we have to do it, we have to do it, and we’ll be ready.”