There has been a steady increase in the use of drones for conservation purposes from watching out for elephant poachers in Africa to looking for orangutans in Indonesia. The drones are able to monitor areas out of reach for humans and get a much wider view than someone on the ground could, but are surveys and monitoring operations carried out with drones actually more accurate and effective than operations carried out by trained scientists and conservationists on the ground?
Yes, it turns out, according to recent research. A new study conducted by ecologist Dr. Rohan Clarke at Monash University sought to figure out if drones were actually a better option for ecological studies and he found that they were far better than traditional ground-based 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," Dr. Clarke said.
His research used drones to monitor the size of seabird colonies in tropical and polar environments and compared that to traditional ground counts. The studies took place at Ashmore Reef (tropical) and Macquarie Island (Sub-Antarctic). The researchers compared drone image counts with those done at the same time by humans on the ground for three types of seabirds: frigatebirds, terns and penguins.
The counts done with the drones were more consistent than the ones taken on the ground. Researchers said the aerial view reduced the likelihood that birds would be missed by terrain or other birds blocking the line of sight.
"It’s highly likely that in the future, drones will be used to monitor populations of birds and animals, especially in inaccessible areas where on the ground surveying is difficult or impossible. This opens up exciting new possibilities when it comes to more accurately monitoring Earth’s ecosystems,” Dr Clarke said.
Another important aspect the study focused on was whether the drones startled the animals as they flew over. The researchers saw no signs of startling during the surveys, which is important not just for the well-being of the animal but also for accuracy.
There have unfortunately been instances where recreational drones were used to record wildlife and the animals were startled and endangered. This study shows that when used by scientists, drones can be an important tool in ecological studies and conservation planning, just leave it to the professionals, please.