For marine scientists, undertaking research into sea mammals like dugongs in remote locations has always been difficult. But now, drones are helping to make marine conservation efforts more affordable, accessible, and reliable.

Two years ago, an international team of collaborators decided to take a new approach to wildlife surveying. Trialing their novel method in the remote waters of the Pilbara in Western Australia, the researchers operated drones in small grids to record and categorize dugong sightings.

Tailoring drone flight paths for marine research

Compared to manned aircraft, using small drones such as the Phantom 4 Pro is a much more affordable and viable option for wildlife researchers. However, when it comes to surveying vast, unending waters, a drone’s limitation in range and endurance can prove quite challenging. So, the enterprising scientists decided to find a way around that as well.

Dr. Christophe Cleguer from the Harry Butler Institute of Murdoch University explains:

Instead of using a horizontal flight path consisting of long parallel lines up and down the entire survey area, we tested a grid-based system where you could survey one or more grid cells at a time using smaller drones. The technique required minimal movement since you only needed to anchor the boat at the intersection of the grid, while keeping the drone in the visual line of sight from the boat.

Drones bring down re-surveying costs

Not only did the grid system allow the scientists to survey areas of interest extremely accurately, the method also made way for easy re-surveying of an area several times because of its affordability. As such, the research team was able to understand how a marine species’ distribution and abundance changes over time – no matter the time of day, tide, or season.

marine research drones
Drones can be used to track any marine megafauna that can be seen at the surface

On average, 90 aerial wildlife survey flights were conducted during each three-week research trip. The aerial data captured in this period comprised of approximately 25,000 images, resulting in a level of detail that is difficult to obtain via other means.

Overall, a total of 240 flights were conducted during the experiment, resulting in the sightings of 149 dugongs.

Further, to supplement the aerial surveys, the researchers also used telemetry tracking tools. This included using GPS satellite and accelerometry tags on dugongs to track and understand their movement at night. And Cleguer assures that the results have been encouraging:

We have been able to use the aerial imagery data to correct imperfect detection of previous animal sightings in the area to develop spatially-explicit models of dugong distribution off the Pilbara. This a major step forward in the spatial modeling of animal density distribution. These advances are an exciting development for wildlife managers who so often rely on spatially-explicit outputs to support effective management actions.

To learn more about the conservation efforts being undertaken to save the dugong with drones, watch this video:

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