Unmanned aircraft count for conservation

Unmanned aircraft have captured high-quality images of dugongs in Australia’s first trial to see whether the military- style drones can help scientists manage and conserve marine mammals.

Murdoch University’s Dr Amanda Hodgson — recipient of the Bill Dawbin post-doctoral fellowship for applied cetacean research — enlisted the help of Insitu Pacific and its ScanEagle Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), to investigate whether UAVs are a cost-effective and capable alternative to fixed-wing, manned aircraft for counting and surveying marine mammals.

‘The conservation and management of many marine mammal species is largely dependent on monitoring habitat use and population status by conducting aerial surveys from manned aircraft,’ Dr Hodgson said.

'We’ve shown that a stills camera mounted on normal planes can provide dugong sighting data equivalent to human observers and, after this first direct trail of UAV technology it looks like the photos from the UAV are just as good.’

The ScanEagle is a low-cost, long-endurance system designed specifically for surveillance and flexible, rapid deployment on land and at sea. It can operate up to an altitude of 20 000 feet for up to 28 hours at a time.

UAVs like the ScanEagle eliminate the risks posed to human observers by flying low over large areas of ocean in small planes, and the ability to review photos (rather than relying on observer counts alone) should enable more accurate detection, location and identification of species.

‘During this first trial we’ve focused on dugongs and collected images of them with various camera adjustments, while flying the UAV at various heights, air speeds and in different environmental conditions to assess the best way to use this technology to survey dugongs,’ Dr Hodgson said.

Dr Hodgson will work with Insitu Pacific over the next three years to fine-tune its UAV camera systems with the objective of improving surveys of dugongs and humpback whales. These animals have been routinely surveyed for a number of decades in many sites around Australia and the datasets produced have formed the basis for conservation management.

Once the camera system is fully developed, Dr Hodgson will directly compare the results from traditional manned and UAV surveys of dugongs and humpback whales to test the efficacy of the UAV surveys.

‘Eventually we hope UAVs will allow us to survey large and remote areas where manned surveys are logistically challenging,’ she said.

‘Large areas of Australia’s coastline have never been surveyed for dugongs or humpback whales and UAVs capable of flying long distances may allow us to access these remote areas.’

Adapted from an article published by Murdoch University.

Dr Hodgson’s UAV research has previously featured in Australian Antarctic Magazine 13: 25, 2007