The World Outdoors: Researchers flock to drones

Drone for monitoring birds

[Editor’s Note: Drones are being used to monitor breeding and migrating birds, as well as, inspect nests.]

This post originally appeared on http://www.lfpress.com/2017/01/20/the-world-outdoors-researchers-flock-to-drones.

Drone technology has been applied in support of bird science for more than a decade now.

With the cost of this technology continuing to drop, the use of it is broadening across North America.

In the same way that retail, military, and hobby sectors have embraced drones, bird scientists have realized drones can be deployed to do some bird census work and gather data in remote or otherwise inaccessible locations.

Dr. David Bird, a McGill University professor emeritus of wildlife biology, bird book author, and the founding editor of the Journal of Unmanned Vehicle Systems, is a real champion of this technology.

“Small unmanned vehicle systems, formerly exclusive to militaries, are rapidly advancing in sophistication and availability to civilians.” he said. “One area that shows great potential for the applications of UVS and associated markets is wildlife research and management.”

The monitoring of breeding and migrating birds, mapping breeding habitat of species at risk, and examining nest contents of birds such as raptors in inaccessible locations are just a few specific examples.

Bird noted the U.S. Geological Survey has been using drones for avian research and management for years, especially for bird population surveys.

“Unmanned aerial vehicles so often represent a practical, safe and relatively quick alternative and they yield accurate results. They are particularly good for work with colonial birds such as nesting great blue herons, gulls and common terns.”

Drones have been used in a tern study at the Tern Islands off New Brunswick to advance our understanding of climate change impact.

Interestingly, a comparison was done between the drone count and a count completed by a team of scientists walking in a “lawnmower pattern.”

The ground count total was 2,372 terns versus the drone count of 2,426, a difference of only two per cent.

The reason for the discrepancy is that some terns are “playing house” and not really nesting, but drones flying overhead cannot detect that behaviour.

Studies of birds at risk, such as the least bittern, are being helped in some cases by drone technology.

Results from taking aerial images with drones allows researchers to map the habitat used by these secretive birds after their territories are revealed by audio playback.

Drones equipped with specialized equipment are now in use. Hyperspectral cameras that collect information from across the electromagnetic spectrum are mounted on drones to assist in habitat evaluation studies.

Forward-Looking Infrared, or FLIR cameras, that can capture infrared thermal images are mounted on drones.

This technology can be useful for nocturnal bird survey work.

It has also been deployed experimentally near Kincardine to detect heat signatures from nests of bobolinks, a species that nests in some selected farm crops.

Bird remarked on another specialized use of drones. “Dispersal of nuisance birds is a billion-dollar growth industry globally. Think of starlings that congregate at vineyards.”

In a paper entitled Wildlife research and management methods in the 21st century: Where do unmanned aircraft fit in? Bird and co-author Dominique Chabot underlined opportunities and challenges.

“As technology and industry continue to develop and the regulatory procedures begin to loosen, we anticipate an ever-widening range of applications to surface in this field.”

Bird and Chabot added a cautionary note as well.

“They allow unprecedented close-up remote observation of focal subjects in hard-to-reach places. However, numerous technological, economical, regulatory, and ethical barriers to effective use of unmanned aerial systems remain, and we encourage wildlife research and management practitioners to carefully weigh the benefits they may derive against any such drawbacks as they contemplate using the technology.”

Nature notes

• Dr. David Bird was the primary champion of the gray jay last fall as the Royal Canadian Geographical Society endeavoured to establish a national bird for Canada. The RCGS is now hoping to have this species made our official national bird.

• Invasive plant species is the theme of an illustrated presentation by Dr. Daria Koscinski Tuesday at 7 p.m. at London’s central library. This free event is co-sponsored by Nature London and the London Public Library. See naturelondon.co

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