Drone-Based Approach is More Accurate for Monitoring Wildlife

A team of experienced wildlife spotters, a drone, and a few thousand rubber ducks have demonstrated the accuracy and usefulness of drones for wildlife monitoring.

Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV). (Image credit: University of Adelaide)

A study carried out by the University of Adelaide showed that using drones for monitoring wildlife is more accurate than standard counting methods. The results of the study have been reported in Methods in Ecology and Evolution - the British Ecological Society journal.

For a few years now, drones have been used to monitor different animals that can be seen from above, including elephants, seals, and nesting birds. But, until now, the accuracy of using drones to count wildlife was unclear.

We needed to test the technology where we knew the correct answer. We couldn’t use wild animals because we could never be sure of the real number of individuals present.

Jarrod Hodgson, Lead Author & Researcher

The solution was the #EpicDuckChallenge and a few thousand rubber ducks.

The team set out by making fake bird colonies out of the decoy ducks on a beach located in Adelaide, Australia. Those who counted birds from drone imagery were challenged by experienced wildlife spotters to see which group could get closest to the exact number of fake birds.

There were ideal conditions on the day. By using telescopes or binoculars, the ground spotters counted the fake birds. In the meantime, a drone was flown over the beach, which took pictures of the birds from the sky at varying heights. Next, citizen scientists computed the number of birds they could view in the photos. The drone technique won in the end.

We found it is more accurate and more precise to have people count birds from the drone imagery than to do it on location,” Mr. Hodgson says.

However, the researchers were not finished there. It takes a long time to count birds in photos which can easily tire out citizen scientists. Therefore, the research team developed a computer algorithm to automatically count the ducks, which produced results that were just as good as humans assessing the imagery.

With so many animals across the world facing extinction, our need for accurate wildlife data has never been greater

Accurate monitoring can detect small changes in animal numbers. That is important because if we had to wait for a big shift in those numbers to notice the decline, it might be too late to conserve a threatened species.

Our results show that monitoring animals with drones produces better data that we can use to proactively manage wildlife.

Jarrod Hodgson, Lead Author & Researcher

Scientists from the University of Tasmania, the Australian Antarctic Division, and Monash University co-authored the research paper.

A video showing some of the #EpicDuckChallenge can be viewed here.

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