To inventory a bird population, ecologists made a drone out of a 4.6-foot-wide radio-controlled airplane, two cameras and a Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking unit, all for less than $2,000. It was the first time scientists have used an unmanned aerial vehicle to inventory a remote bird population, according to ecologist and project leader Francesc Sardà-Palomera of Centre Tecnològic Forestal de Catalunya Solsona in Catalonia, Spain.
“If you want to use a real plane, you need to rent a pilot, rent the plane, pay for the fuel, everything,” said Sardà-Palomera, who led the drone-assisted bird-counting study. “It adds up. [The drone] is a great method, and it’s very cheap.”
Aerial drones aren’t new. The U.S. Army has used unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to spy on and sometimes kill enemies for years. Meanwhile, hobbyists enjoy the bird’s-eye view of their custom-built rigs. (Some have even lofted camera-equipped devices to the edge of space.)
A research group in 2006 pioneered the use of camera-packing drones to monitor hard-to-reach or easily disturbed wildlife populations, but found software and hardware incapable of gathering research-grade data. By 2009, however, the technology caught up. Another team used custom-built drones to count marine mammals such as beaked whales and Dall’s porpoises.
In 2010, Sardà-Palomera and his team found themselves frustrated by trying to count a remote population of rare black-headed gulls on a lagoon island in northeast Spain.
“You have to go with a boat, and when you’re just 100 meters from the colony, all of the birds start to fly away,” he said.
Borrowing designs used in the marine-mammal-tracking study, Sardà-Palomera’s team members built their own drone. They bought a small wireless video camera and embedded it in the nose of a remote-controlled airplane to provide a live, first-person view for the pilot. A downward-pointing camera continuously snapped 12-megapixel photos from roughly 130 feet up.
For 15 minutes at a time, they flew their electric drone over the lagoon and captured images of the colony without disturbing it. Following a soft landing, the team used the on-board images andGPScoordinates to inventory adult birds and their nests.
“We have been using it just about every week since this study,” Sardà-Palomera said.
Image copyright: Francesc Sardà-Palomera of Centre Tecnològic Forestal de Catalunya Solsona