3 Tips for Tracking Animals with Drones

Drones have enabled us to gain so many unique insights into the lives and habitats of various species, and now there is even greater scope to combine different sensors, such as thermal and multispectral cameras together with radio-tracking receivers for unprecedented fine scale data collection on individuals and their habitats.

Radio-tracking animals with drones involves the use of the latest innovative technology, including a unique combination of hardware and software. Unlike most other drone applications using visual sensors to observe and study a range of wildlife species, our system enables drones to listen for radio tag signals.  That is, Wildlife Drones are capable of finding individually radio-tagged animals where ever they may be across the landscape so their ecology, movements, survival and home ranges can be studied.  This is particularly important when needing to improve management of threatened species or to help control invasive species.

But amidst all the benefits that drones bring, their potential to affect animals has prompted a discussion on the need for drone operators to adopt more wildlife-conscious flying practices. This is because current drone laws mainly concern the protection of people and infrastructure, rather than wildlife and their habitats. However an example of where drone laws do take wildlife into consideration is the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Regulation which provides whale and dolphin viewing guidelines, where drones are recognised as being equivalent to manned aircraft.

As the use of drones for wildlife studies is still relatively new, people using drones to track animals are tasked with the unique challenge of using cutting edge technology while adhering to legal airspace requirements and navigating within natural environments to minimise any disturbance to the animals being tracked. This often means that drone users will need to employ a sense of best judgement when carrying out such animal-tracking operations based on their knowledge of the animals they are tracking or observing.

To help you get the most out of animal-tracking with drones, we’ve compiled three tips to keep in mind before you fly.

  1. Consider the impact on animals

While drones are making animal tracking easier, it is important to bear in mind how animals might be affected by the presence of a drone in their environment. An article by UAV Applications lecturer, Margarita Mulero-Pazmany, highlights some of the potential impacts drones can have on wildlife, such as causing physiological stress or behavioural changes.

Although she noted that there is ‘no reliable indicator that can give us an idea of the extent to which these flights are affecting wildlife,’ she did advise drone flyers to take the following steps to minimise any impact they may have:

  • Take-off and land at least 100 metres away from animals
  • Maintain a reasonable distance away from the animal when in-flight
  • Do not fly directly over the animal
  • Avoid disturbing them during vulnerable periods eg. when breeding
  1. Get familiar with your new tech

Some of the challenges often overlooked when first considering the use of new technology in the field is the need to maintain the equipment as well as managing battery power.  It’s always a good idea to ensure all firmware and/or software is up to date before heading out, and making sure the tech is only used under suitable environmental conditions (e.g. rain and electronics don’t mix well!).  In terms of using technology in remote locations, consideration needs to be given to the accessibility of power for charging tech equipment batteries.  Having enough batteries on hand that can be charged up overnight means that you can fly all day if needed, or alternatively you could set up a charging system for in the field to enable you to purchase less batteries and charge them as you go out in the field.

  1. Understand the environment and regulations

While drones might be easy to fly, they can be even easier to crash if you don’t properly understand the constraints and hazards in the area you are flying. Before you go out into the field, it’s important that you are aware of any potential local airspace issues, you are confident and capable of operating your drone within the relevant environment, and that you understand how the weather conditions and terrain of your study area might affect how and where you are able to fly.  Depending on where you are, you might be required to obtain a permit to fly or get permission from landholders. The type of drone you are planning to use might also require you to have a drone licence or at least have it registered or insured, however these requirements are highly variable between countries so it’s best to always seek information from local authorities.

 

Sources

Approaching marine mammals in NSW. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/topics/animals-and-plants/native-animals/native-animal-facts/whales/whale-watching-in-nsw/approaching-marine-mammals-in-nsw

Drones in parks policy. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/topics/parks-reserves-and-protected-areas/park-policies/drones-in-parks

Flying drones/remotely piloted aircraft in Australia. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.casa.gov.au/aircraft/landing-page/flying-drones-australia

Mulero-Pazmany, M. (2018). Viral bear video shows how drones threaten wildlife – and what to do about it. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/viral-bear-video-shows-how-drones-threaten-wildlife-and-what-to-do-about-it-106903

Image source: Pok Rie (Pexels)

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