Tropical deforestation continues to be a major driver of biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions. Remote sensing technology is increasingly used to assess changes in forest cover, species distributions and carbon stocks. However, satellite and airborne sensors can be prohibitively costly and inaccessible for researchers in developing countries. Here, we describe the development and use of an inexpensive (<$2,000) unmanned aerial vehicle for surveying and mapping forests and biodiversity (referred to as ‘Conservation Drone’ hereafter). Our prototype drone is able to fly pre-programmed missions autonomously for a total flight time of ~25 minutes and over a distance of ~15 km. Non-technical operators can program each mission by defining waypoints along a flight path using an open-source software. This drone can record videos at up to 1080 pixel resolution (high definition), and acquire aerial photographs of <10 cm pixel resolution. Aerial photographs can be stitched together to produce real-time geo-referenced land use/cover maps of surveyed areas. We evaluate the performance of this prototype Conservation Drone based on a series of test flights in Aras Napal, Sumatra, Indonesia. We discuss the further development of Conservation Drone 2.0, which will have a bigger payload and longer range. Initial tests suggest a flight time of ~50 minutes and a range of ~25 km. Finally, we highlight the potential of this system for environmental and conservation applications, which include near real-time mapping of local land cover, monitoring of illegal forest activities, and surveying of large animal species.