Unmanned Vehicles for Improved Ecology and Wildlife Science (UVIEWS)

This project aims to improve the quality, cost, and safety of wildlife and ecological research through the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also called “drones.” This emerging technology has the potential to transform the natural sciences, including ecology and wildlife biology. Our interests are especially focused on how to use this technology as a tool in studies of wildlife to collect more and better data on wildlife behavior and populations, so that we can improve research and management in Alaska and beyond.

From tracking down individual research animals that have died or moved long distances, to capturing animals in order to affix GPS collars, to counting herds of caribou or flocks of ptarmigan, flights are an integral part of wildlife research. Yet these flights are costly and dangerous. Every year, biologists and pilots die in small plane and helicopter crashes while doing important wildlife research. In addition, many millions of dollars are spent in doing this work currently, as small plane and helicopter flight time are very expensive. UAVs have the potential to replace some of these wildlife survey and relocation flights, at considerably lower cost and risk.

In addition to improving safety and cost using UAVs, we can also collect new kinds of data and higher quality versions of the data we already collect, with less disturbance to the animals themselves. UAVs are much quieter and smaller than fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters, and can also be flown lower and slower, improving the quality of the data. By using techniques such as infrared video and photography to capture images of animals, we can also detect animals that a human being’s eyesight might miss, improving the quality of the information gathered.

We recently completed phase one of this project, which involved testing out infrared and visual survey methods at the Large Animal Research Station on the University of Alaska Fairbanks, housing captive herds of caribou, reindeer and muskoxen. Once we learn which techniques and altitudes work best, we hope to scale up our project to survey for wild animals, potentially including caribou, moose, musk oxen, dall sheep and bears.