Studying ocean animals can be a tough gig. By simply observing them you change their environment.
You can try to get as close as possible by boat, but you run the risk of stressing the animals out or scaring them off. Alternatively, you can get in a plane and observe them from the air — but flying can be risky, and you can’t get very close to the animals because of the noise.
Cue Amanda Hodgson, a researcher at Murdoch University in Australia, who is taking a different approach to marine research: She’s using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), better known as drones.
Drones give researchers an eagle-eye view of their subjects, enabling them to count individuals easily and thereby determine the population’s size, keep tabs on migration patterns, and assess the species’ overall health. They are helpful not only in research, but in keeping poachers away.
The benefits of drones
In a case study published last year in PLOS One, Hodgson and her colleagues used a small aerial drone (shown launching on the right) to survey dugongs, manatee-like marine mammals, in Shark Bay, Australia — the first Australian UAV survey trial. The drone captured 627 images containing dugongs, and the researchers were also able to identify a range of other marine animals, including whales, dolphins, and turtles.
These are some of the images they captured, with dugongs outlined in red (click for larger images to see the animals):
Since then, she’s conducted two additional, currently unpublished trials with the drones — another one searching for dugongs, and one with humpback whales. These studies paired human observers with the drones to test the accuracy of drones compared to people. The results are still pending, but so far Hodgson believes drones have high potential when it comes to marine research. There are several reasons for this.
“Probably the biggest [advantage] for a lot of people is the fact that it’s human risk-free, Hodgson told Business Insider. Humans out in the open ocean are at risk of weather events or mechanical failures, and in her dugong paper, Hodgson estimates that at least 11 people have been killed during manned aerial surveys.
These unmanned drones not only save human lives, but there are a number of other perks, Hodgson added.
Small drones are “greener” than manned aircraft because they use much less gas. And, because they don’t require a runway to get in the air, they can be launched from just about anywhere — including from boats in the middle of the ocean — allowing researchers to survey areas humans wouldn’t ordinarily be able to get to.
Most importantly, Hodson said, drones are more reliable than human eyes and memory. “You have a permanent record of every sighting so you can confirm the numbers and species much more easily,” she said.
Not just for Dugongs
Hodgson isn’t the only researcher taking to the skies. Wayne Perryman is another researcher at the forefront of drone-based research in the US. He’s used UAVs to monitor penguins and leopard seals in Antarctica, and more recently has taken his drones out to sea to study sperm whales and orcas in their native habitats.
Perryman, who works with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Southwest Fisheries Science Center, believes drones have the potential to be less obtrusive and stressful to marine animals than boats, which pollute the ocean with noise. After flying drones at various heights over orcas — even as low as 30 feet overhead — he and his team observed no reactions from the animals.
“I think with large whales, with these little electric driven, multi-engine copters, you could probably land on one before it would notice,” he told Business Insider.
This also means that drones are useful for more than observation — one Massachusetts college wants to collect whale mucus by swooping in and catching spray from the whales’ blowholes. They have been testing the drones by flying them over “surrogate” whales built from catamarans, as seen below (or, check out the full video):
And drones aren’t just useful at sea — organisations like Conservation Drones are finding drone applications in research and conservation on land, like monitoring birds. And, in addition to Perryman’s whale research, NOAA has an entire program devoted to using drones for environmental research, including taking atmospheric samples and surveying sea lion populations.
Drones can also be used to fight off threats of the non-environmental kind: Kenya just announced plans to deploy drones in all of its national parks and reserves giving rangers 24-hour aerial surveillance for poachers.
Last year, more than 1,000 rhinos were killed by poachers in South Africa alone, and elephants face similar threats — but drones equipped with infrared cameras can pinpoint poachers as they try to creep up on the animals in the dark.
The video below is a field test conducted by researchers from the University of Maryland in South Africa, demonstrating a drone’s effective infrared capabilities (click here to check out the full video):
Revolutionary, but not necessarily legal
While Hodgson and Perryman have made significant advances in using drones for research, significant obstacles stand in their way.
The Federal Aviation Administration has strict rules when it comes to the commercial use of drones — an umbrella that includes scientific research. Before proceeding with any work involving drones, researchers must obtain a certificate of authorization, which is only available to public entities like government agencies or public (but not private) universities. That puts a strict limit on who can do drone-based research, including cutting most conservation organisations out of the game.
On the other hand, recreational drone use is far less regulated. This can sometimes be a boon to wildlife enthusiasts, enabling them to capture videos like this one of a dolphin stampede:
Videos like the one above, shot by Dave Anderson, can be great tools for raising public awareness about certain species, but in most cases are not reliable enough for use by researchers.
Changing the conservation game
But Perryman is hopeful: the FAA is expected to release an updated set of regulations for small UAVs at the end of the year, which could make the process easier for scientists hoping to use drones in their research.
Even without laxer regulations, Perryman said, drones are likely to become ubiquitous as research tools. “I see these drones as becoming just like a pair of binoculars, just something else you take in the field,” he said. “And when the opportunity presents itself, you take advantage of them.”
That goes for all kinds of science, added Hodgson, the pioneering dugong researcher. “There’s so many applications for UAVs, and people are already really looking into all the different possibilities,” she said. “It’s undoubtedly going to be a tool that a lot of researchers use.”
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