From baby bears to migrating whales – the need to minimise the impact of drones on wildlife

As an ecologist and a drone pilot I was horrified by the recent viral video clearly showing a distressed mother bear and her cub while attempting to escape from an invasive drone.  This irresponsible use of a drone created an incredibly dangerous situation on a snow cliff that resulted in the baby bear risking serious injury and death as it desperately tried to reach its mother.

Unfortunately, as drones become an increasingly embedded part of our society and have an expanding range of capabilities and applications, such issues are becoming more prevalent within even the most remote and natural areas.  Therefore, there is a need to more clearly identify when and where drone operations are acceptable or unacceptable within these environments, establish and enforce suitable regulations, as well as disseminate clear, concise information to the broader community.

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Photo: Brown bear by Rasmus Svinding (Pexels)

An example of how we may be able to minimise the impacts of drones on vulnerable wildlife is illustrated by the “approach distance regulations” established to protect marine mammals in Australia.  In this case, state Biodiversity Conservation Regulations 2017 were established to restrict the type and extent of approaches allowable by boats, planes, helicopters and drones in the vicinity of marine mammals, including increased distances from mothers and their young.  This also included the distribution of communication materials to the broader community and relevant industry bodies via the media and national guidelines for dolphin and whale watching so that everyone could understand exactly what was required.

Although I haven’t been able to find any studies that have evaluated the effectiveness of these measures, my impression is that the broader community appears to be generally accepting of the regulations and wildlife can now be appreciated but also respected and given more space to exist without harassment.

The challenge of course is to apply such a system to a diverse range of species and ecosystems that have differing sensitivities and approach limit requirements that are currently unknown.  But we have to start somewhere and until we better understand the responses of different of species and develop regulations to deal with it, those of us within the drone community need to take responsibility for our own actions and openly share and learn from each other’s experiences in terms of minimising impacts on wildlife.

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Image: Drones are included in regulations restricting approach distances for marine mammals (Commonwealth of Australia)

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