Wildlife Drones Goes Goanna Tracking

“If we can just fly a drone overhead and collect GPS data without having to negotiate cliffy areas and Blackthorn scrub, it would save lots of time and energy and a few twisted ankles”. – Dr Don Fletcher

In January, we had the opportunity to track Rosenberg’s Goannas in Namadgi National Park. It was a significant day for us as this was our first time tracking a ground-dwelling animal and the first time we had incorporated a GPS-download with our system.

The goannas we were tracking were part of a project led by Dr Don Fletcher, a volunteer researcher from the National Park’s Association. To better understand these elusive creatures, the goannas had been tagged with a radio-tag and a GPS-tag which recorded their movements. However, to collect the GPS-data, volunteers would have to navigate through thick bushland in order to get close enough to each tag.

On the day, we were able to witness the challenges of manually tracking these goannas firsthand. The terrain was rugged and dense with Native Blackthorn that would prick and scratch you at even the slightest movement. However this didn’t seem to deter some goannas, who actually seemed to enjoy hiding in the thicket of these shrubs – making it even harder for the volunteers to get close to them.

Don and Deb#2
Don uses a manual radio-receiver while Debbie flies the drone to compare the signal detectability of a nearby goanna (Credit: Stuart Cohen)

While this was happening, we tested our system’s tracking capability by flying our drone around the study site. As soon as the drone was up in the air, we were immediately able to detect the radio-tags of nearby goannas and see their locations on our base station. Not only were we able to locate the goannas, but we were also able to use the drone to download the GPS-data from their tags as well. This was an incredible achievement for our team and the first time in the world that this had been done.

As a further testament to our system’s capabilities, we were even able to locate a goanna that was underground in a wombat’s burrow. While we thought that this might hinder the tag’s signal, all concerns were immediately pushed away as soon as we saw the drone detect the tag. With this in mind, we believe that our system has the scope to track animals with more cryptic lifestyles.

Being out in the field with Don and his team was an incredibly rewarding experience for us. Not only could we experience the real-world benefits of using our system in a project such as this, we were also able to seek feedback and identify ways in which we could improve the user’s in-field experience.

 

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