Miniature remote controlled aircraft are being trialled at Shark Bay in Western Australia for use in marine mammal surveys.

Dr Amanda Hodgson from Murdoch University said the project, funded by the Australian Antarctic Division’s Marine Mammal Centre, is investigating whether this new technology can improve current manned aerial survey methods by eliminating human risk.

“We don’t have to have observers flying low over large areas of ocean in small planes,” Dr Hodgson said.

“In addition, [it] should allow more accurate detection, location and identification of species,” she said.

The project will allow researchers to gain a greater understanding of the abundance of marine mammals, their distribution and habitat use.

The trial is using a ScanEagle Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) provided by Insitu Pacific, to collect images of dugongs in the Shark Bay area.

The project has $440 000 funding over the next three years to work with Insitu Pacific to fine tune the cameras and sensors on the aircraft, to allow them to be used for surveying other marine mammals and extending their use into more remote areas.

“Large areas of the Australian 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,” Dr Hodgson said.