Four ways a drone's bird's eye view is helping biologists

Jun 13, 2017 11:11:05 AM

drones birds eye view biologists

Anyone who has seen Planet Earth II will know that drones were instrumental in getting some of the amazing footage featured in the hit BBC documentary.

But drones have been used to watch wildlife in more useful ways, too.

The ability of drones to conveniently and efficiently gather photos and video from unique perspectives has been immensely useful to animal researchers.

1. Drones fly through blow sprays of humpback whales for health checks

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Researchers are using a drone to obtain samples from the blow sprays of humpback whales on the B.C. coast and analyzing the contents as a way to measure health.

Lance Barrett-Lennard, a whale scientist with the Vancouver Aquarium, said Saturday that a drone used last August off northern Vancouver Island flew three to four metres above humpbacks.

In an interview at a marine mammal symposium at the University of B.C., Barrett-Lennard said that the drone is flown off a small motorized research vessel, first conducting flights at an altitude of about 45 metres to obtain images of the overall health of the whales.

Then new batteries are put in the drone for a separate flight in which it hovers low and flies right through the blow plume collecting “whale snot, basically,” he said.

“They have a V-shaped blow,” he noted. “Sometimes we’d be right in the middle. It takes a while to get used to. It’s flying through a cloud with droplets in it. The drone ends up all slimy and rusty.”

The drone is then swabbed off and samples sent to the provincial animal pathology lab in Abbotsford and to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

The information should provide information on fungal, bacterial, and viral organisms in the respiratory tract of a living whale, something that cannot be duplicated during a necropsy on a dead one. Ultimately, the research is meant to offer more detail into what a healthy whale looks like.

Barrett-Lennard said that drones are a cost-efficient alternative to helicopters and are quieter and less invasive. Humpbacks give no indication of being bothered by them flying low overhead.

“We haven’t been able to detect any reaction on their part … or reason to think they even recognize the drone as something interesting,” Barrett-Lennard said. When feeding, humpbacks often attract seabirds and are “presumably used to small objects” close by, he added.

Drones have been used on the B.C. coast since 2014 on resident orcas to assess body size and health, including pregnancies. Drones are currently being used only on humpback blow sprays due to the large size.

2. UAVs with thermal imaging tech used to count Canadian seals

An academic article was published in Scientific Reports that illustrates just how useful drones can be for research and data collection.

The paper describes how a team of scientists from Duke University flew a fixed wing UAV, equipped with thermal sensors, to image two grey seal breeding colonies in eastern Canada. A human team analyzed and counted the seals that were photographed, while an automated computer system did the same.

The automated results fell within 95 to 98% of the humans' count. And where there was a discrepancy, it was due largely to human error.

The results show that the algorithm used to automatically sort wildlife populations is effective.

And the implications? 

Automated image classification models like the one in this study synergize well with unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). Appropriate use of UAS can output more precise counts than traditional methods and can yield cost savings. Additionally, UAS assessment of marine vertebrate populations can reduce human risk, and a recent review of job-related mortalities of wildlife biologists revealed that a significant proportion arose from aviation accidents. This type of risk is amplified when working in coastal regions or over the water. The combination of automated image classification and UAS in this study presents a compelling argument for a decrease in the cost of wildlife assessments, a reduction in analyst time and minimization of risk to human surveyors.

In other words, it's cheaper, more accurate, and safer.

Read the fascinating report in full here:

3. Drone footage shows how narwhals use tusks to hunt

For the first time ever, footage has been taken of narwhals to show how their tusks help them feed — although it might not be exactly what you're picturing.

Although they have a pointed end — perfect for spearing and piercing — they actually do the job of a blunt object. They were observed hunting arctic cod off the Canadian coast by a drone, which was able to get in 

“As the cod was positioned close to the tip of the tusk, the narwhal then sort of gave it a quick hard tap that likely stunned the fish, it looked like it was momentarily not moving, and then the narwhal would move in with its mouth and suck in the prey,” says Department of Fisheries and Oceans biologist Steve Ferguson in a video uploaded by Fisheries Canada.

Watch the footage below.



4. Drone footage reveals how blue whales feed

The blue whale is the biggest animal on Earth, so you might think that it's easy for them to find a meal. Unfortunately, their favorite food happens to be krill, one of Earth's smallest animals.

That makes dinner time a little bit more complicated for these gentle behemoths. 

Now researchers at Oregon State have been able to get a unique perspective on this activity, with the use of a drone. As we've noted before, drones are particularly useful in observing animals, and even gathering samples in the case of humpback whales. 

One great insight from drone footage is just how picky these guys are. If you're an animal as big as a blue whale, gaining momentum takes a lot of energy, and if you open your mouth to grab a bite, it's going to seriously slow you down. The result is that you have to be pretty sure that it's going to be worth it. As you can see in the video below, some patches of krill just aren't worth the effort.




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