Drones (A.K.A. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) for Wildlife Ecology

I’m working with a team that includes the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aerial Systems Integration (ACUASI), as well as fellow wildlife biologists Katie Christie and Casey Brown, to develop UAV survey techniques for alaskan big game species, including muskox, caribou and moose, using infrared cameras mounted on the UAV. Below is a video clip taken with our infrared camera from the ground, of captive reindeer at the Large Animal Research Station (LARS) at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. As you can see, the reindeer are clearly visible against the colder background of the snow.

Reindeer are hot! Infrared cameras for monitoring wildlife from Sophie Gilbert on Vimeo.

So, why is this technology a big improvement for wildlife research?

Working in Alaska and other remote places of the world is completely wonderful… and also very frustrating sometimes. Because these places are big, wild and hard to access, they contain some of the world’s best conserved ecosystems, including abundant large mammals for me to study. But with this remoteness comes very real challenges to doing science, such as a high cost and high risk to collecting field data. For those that study large mammals, flying around in small planes and helicopters is a part of the job description- no flying, no data, as counting numbers of animals, monitoring study animals for mortality or birth, and recovering GPS collars can be nearly impossible without getting up in the air and tracking those animals down. But every year, biologists and pilots die, as these types of small plane and helicopter flights are prone to crashes.

Now, with the advent unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which most of us know as “drones,” wildlife data may get cheaper, better, and lower risk to collect than ever before. Drones are being used for all kinds of applications, from counting orangutans in the jungle canopy and elephants in the savannah, to walruses, sea lions and whales in the arctic. Researchers are even developing software that allows drones to automatically relocate GPS collars based on the radio signal that each collar emits, potentially making telemetry flights, one of the riskiest components of wildlife biology, potentially obsolete.