Florida could use drones to fight pythons, invasive species

Author: Brendan Farrington / Associated Press/WINK News
Published: Updated:
Burmese pythons can grow up to 19 feet. Photo via Flickr.

Florida could turn to the sky to fight Burmese pythons on the ground under a bill a Senate committee unanimously approved Monday to allow two state agencies to use drones in the effort to eradicate invasive plants and animals.

The bill would create an exception to a current law that prohibits law enforcement from using drones to gather information and bans state agencies from using drones to gather images on private land. It would allow the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Florida Forest Service to fly drones to manage and eradicate invasion species on public lands.

Sen. Ben Albritton said he has been told that drones equipped with LiDAR, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging, might be able to identify pythons.

“As you know, chasing those nasty critters down there in the Everglades is a difficult task,” Albritton said. “It would help these folks do their job.”

He said drones would also help the agencies spot a fern native to Asia that’s destroying Florida’s natural vegetation.

“There’s this plant called lygodium — old world climbing fern — which is wreaking havoc all over Everglades National Park and many other places in the state. I’ve flown over it in a helicopter and I recognized that it was pretty easy to discern where it is,” Albritton said.

The state wildlife agency’s website warns that lygodium spreads rapidly and is a “severe threat” to Everglades tree islands and puts other forests at greater risk for wildfires because it serves as a fire ladder.

“The fern’s ability to grow up and over trees and shrubs and to form dense horizontal canopies allows it to cover whole communities of plants reducing native plant diversity,” the website says. “Some Everglades tree islands are so completely blanketed by the fern that it is not possible to see trees and other vegetation beneath the fern canopy.”

The bill would also allow the agencies to use drones to fight wildfires.

“During a fire they can use these drones to look for escape routes for employees, if needed, if they get trapped in,” Albritton said. “They can measure tinder on the ground. There’s a lot of different opportunities for that technology to yield a safer environment for those folks.”

How would this help in Southwest Florida?

Geoffrey Roepstorff is a python hunter in SWFL who has some interesting stories to tell about tracking down Burmese pythons.

“The thrill I get out of hunting pythons is not only the trip of being in the Everglades and being out there by yourself but also the possibility of catching one,” he said.

And he’s seen how the species has affected wildlife.

“You don’t see any mammals anymore,” he said.

Roepstorff says the hardest part about hunting the slithery snakes is finding them.

“You have to develop your eye in spotting it and then you have to spend hours and hours and hours of looking,” he said.

The drone tech would come in handy for events like the Python Bowl. Just last week, hundreds entered the Everglades to help wildlife officials kill the species.

“Any tool that the government can give us, whether it’s drones or fix cameras or infrared cameras, that they’re trying to develop, is great because we need as many tools as we can get,” Roepstorff said.

The drones would be equipped with light detection and ranging equipment of LiDar that would be able to identify species.

If the bill passes, it would take effect as early as this summer. Fighting invasive species isn’t the only thing the drones would be used for; the bill would also allow agencies to use drones to fight wildfires.

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