Send In The Drones

The increasing use of drone technology is revolutionizing the ways we think about doing wildlife science and changing the kinds of things we can observe. As a marine mammal scientist who studies cetaceans, dolphins and whales, I see how drones, referred to more formally as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), are affording scientists extended perceptions, far less intrusive means of observing and documenting animal behavior, and new approaches towards protecting wildlife. Drones bring with them a new set of remote sensing and data collection capabilities.

The Holy Grail of observing animals in the wild is not being there, because you’re very presence is often a disturbing influence. Drones are a potential solution to this paradox. Along with the use of drones, it will be important to determine the “critical distance” for approaching specific species and individuals being wary to not encroach too closely. Surely there will be an art and science to getting it right. Imagine the feeling of exhilaration and presence soaring above a socializing pod of whales or dolphins as you spy on them from on high. We can now witness much of what was the secret life of these magnificent mammals, previously unobservable to us, and do it in a disembodied manner. We can observe myriad behaviors and nuances of interactions that could not formerly be seen due to the horizontal view afforded from a research boat, or that would have been interrupted by the very presence of an approaching research vessel.

Animal health assessments and animal rescues are being conducted by veterinarians and researchers with the aid of drones. For example, the Whalecopter, a small drone developed by research scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, took high resolution photographs of whales to document fat levels and skin lesions and then hovered in at closer range to collect samples of whale breath to study bacteria and fungi in their blow—the air whales expel from their blowhole. NOAA scientists in Alaska are using drones to help them with beluga whale strandings in Cook Inlet. Drones are a cost-effective means of getting critical and timely information about the conditions of stranded beluga whales—their location, the number and relative age of the stranded animals, whether they are submerged or partially stranded. All this information could be important for their chance for survival. The relayed images from drones are often clearer than those obtained by a traditional aerial surveys by planes. Even if they can’t save an individual whale, getting to them more quickly enables scientists to conduct a necropsy on fresher tissue and determine the cause of death that could effect the survival of other whales in the future.

Patrol drones are already being used to monitor and protect wildlife from poachers. One organization, Air Shepherd, has effectively been deploying drones in Africa to locate poachers seeking elephant ivory and rhino horns. Preprogrammed drones monitor high traffic areas where the animals are known to congregate—and known also to the poachers. They have already been effective in locating poachers and informing local authorities of their location for subsequent arrest.

It is inspiring to envision all the observations and discoveries that may be in store for us through our deployment of these remote observers, individually or in swarms. In my field, a future generation of cetacean seeking drones may be around the corner—drones programmed to find cetacean shaped forms and follow them. This is a new era of wildlife observation and monitoring. One can envision using a small fleet of “journalist drones” to monitor and provide real time video feeds on the welfare of various species, in our oceans, on our savannahs and in our jungles. We might call it Whole World Watching (WWW) and create a global awareness and a more immediate connection with the other species that share our planet.