Drones could save the environment


Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), popularly known as drones, have the potential to revolutionise ecology and conservation, according to a study at New Zealand’s Monash University.

The report, published in the journal Scientific Reports, posits that drones are much more effective at monitoring the size of seabird colonies than traditional ground-counting methods.

“Until now, it has been unclear as to how precise drone technology might be when monitoring the size of populations of wildlife. Our latest research has demonstrated that a very high degree of precision can be achieved when using drone technology to monitor wildlife,” said Dr Rohan Clarke, ecologist at Monash University and one of the authors of the report.

Drones have long been used, primarily, for military purposes. However, in recent years, with many commercial models hitting the shelves, their uses have expanded tremendously. Recreational use is but one new market. Drones are tipped to become increasingly important in ecology and conservation.

UAVs have already been used to monitor elephant populations and nesting birds, however, their efficacy was not yet tested – until now. The report conducted two monitoring exercises on Ashmore Reef and Macquarie Island.

One experiment used traditional ground methods, the other used drones. The difference in precision was startling.

drone photos report

Drone photo of breeding Crested Terns. (Courtesy: Jarrod Hodgson)

The researchers noted that drone counts were consistently larger than those conducted on the ground. The report claims that drone monitoring makes calculating fluctuations in population size much more accurate.

Not only this, but photographs of populations taken by drones were more clear, and drones had the added benefit of little disruption to the natural population.

“Our team compared the precision of drone-derived image counts with those made at the same time by human counters on the ground for colonies of three types of seabird: frigatebirds, terns and penguins.

“Counters also monitored the colonies during the drone flights for signs that the birds may be startled by the presence of the drone,” said Jarrod Hodgson, lead author of the report.

The results of the Monash University study have already begun to excite ecologists, who see this technology as a likely game-changer in the field of conservation.
“The increased count precision afforded by UAVs, along with their ability to survey hard-to-reach populations and places, will likely drive many wildlife monitoring projects that rely on population counts to transition from traditional methods to UAV technology,” reads the report.
The future of conservation may be here sooner than we think.
The report ‘Precision wildlife monitoring using unmanned aerial vehicles’ was published by Scientific Reports. It is available in full here.

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