By Chelsea Harvey
You can try to get as close as possible by boat, but you run the risk of stressing the animals out or scaring them off. Alternatively, you can get in a plane and observe them from the air — but flying can be risky, and you can't get very close to the animals because of the noise.
Cue Amanda Hodgson, a researcher at Murdoch University in Australia, who is taking a different approach to marine research: She's using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), better known as drones.
Drones give researchers an eagle-eye view of their subjects, enabling them to count individuals easily and thereby determine the population's size, keep tabs on migration patterns, and assess the species' overall health. They are helpful not only in research, but in keeping poachers away.
The benefits of drones
Amanda Hodgson, Natalie Kelly, David Peel In a case study published last year in PLOS One, Hodgson and her colleagues used a small aerial drone (shown launching on the right) to survey dugongs, manatee-like marine mammals, in Shark Bay, Australia — the first Australian UAV survey trial. The drone captured 627 images containing dugongs, and the researchers were also able to identify a range of other marine animals, including whales, dolphins, and turtles. These are some of the images they captured, with dugongs outlined in red (click for larger images to see the animals):
These unmanned drones not only save human lives, but there are a number of other perks, Hodgson added.
Small drones are "greener" than manned aircraft because they use much less gas. And, because they don't require a runway to get in the air, they can be launched from just about anywhere — including from boats in the middle of the ocean — allowing researchers to survey areas humans wouldn't ordinarily be able to get to.
Most importantly, Hodson said, drones are more reliable than human eyes and memory. "You have a permanent record of every sighting so you can confirm the numbers and species much more easily," she said. More....