Jarrod Hodgson, Aleks Terauds and Lian Pin Koh in the Conversation:”Ecologists are increasingly using drones to gather data. Scientists have used remotely piloted aircraft to estimate the health of fragile polar mosses, to measure and predict the mass of leopard seals, and even to collect whale snot. Drones have also been labelled as game-changers for wildlife population monitoring.
But once the take-off dust settles, how do we know if drones produce accurate data? Perhaps even more importantly, how do the data compare to those gathered using a traditional ground-based approach?
To answer these questions we created the #EpicDuckChallenge, which involved deploying thousands of plastic replica ducks on an Adelaide beach, and then testing various methods of tallying them up.
As we report today in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution, drones do indeed generate accurate wildlife population data – even more accurate, in fact, than those collected the old-fashioned way.
Assessing the accuracy of wildlife count data is hard. We can’t be sure of the true number of animals present in a group of wild animals. So, to overcome this uncertainty, we created life-sized, replica seabird colonies, each with a known number of individuals.
From the optimum vantage and in ideal weather conditions, experienced wildlife spotters independently counted the colonies from the ground using binoculars and telescopes. At the same time, a drone captured photographs of each colony from a range of heights. Citizen scientists then used these images to tally the number of animals they could see.
Counts of birds in drone-derived imagery were better than those made by wildlife observers on the ground. The drone approach was more precise and more accurate – it produced counts that were consistently closer to the true number of individuals….(More)”.