Drones Spy On Birds in Flight
Studying birds for a living might sound like a cool job. But it's not without its logistical challenges, for us landbound animals. "I can remember precisely a location where I had a northern gannet, so a really large bird, breeding on the top of the cliff."
David Grémillet, a seabird ecologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research.
"And from the bottom of the cliff I couldn't see what was happening in that nest. I couldn't even see whether the bird was home or not."
Grémillet says technology offers a simple solution: "A drone carefully flown at high altitude over the colony would have been really helpful." That's right—a drone. Grémillet says scientists and citizens alike are increasingly using drones to approach birds—either for fun or legitimate research. But they’re taking flight without knowing how the aerial robots might affect their avian study subjects.
So Grémillet and his colleagues hit the zoo, employing a professional drone pilot to fly test runs near mallard ducks [clip: drone study sound] with a 14-inch-diameter quadcopter. They then got permission to repeat the experiment on wild flamingos and greenshanks in the Camargue, a huge wetland in southern France.
After several hundred flights, the researchers found that the birds didn't seem to care about the drones' color, or approach speed. And the equipment could get as close as 13 feet to the birds without disturbing them—as long as they didn't approach from overhead—an angle associated with predators. The study is in the journal Biology Letters. [Elisabeth Vas et al, Approaching birds with drones: first experiments and ethical guidelines]
All these hi-tech tools could be a boon to wildlife ecologists. "But at the same time you always have to assess the impact of the technology you're using on animal welfare." And maybe drone welfare too. Search YouTube and you'll find that birds of prey, like some privacy advocates, perceive drones as a threat—and make the technology crash, literally. [clip: bird attacking drone, motor stopping, and crashing.]