Volume 45, No. 1

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Will drones reduce investigator disturbance to surface-nesting seabirds?




BORRELLE, S.B. & FLETCHER, A.T. 2017. Will drones reduce investigator disturbance to surface-nesting seabirds?. Marine Ornithology 45: 89 - 94

Received 6 September 2015, accepted 7 March 2017

Date Published: 2017/04/15
Date Online: 2017/04/02
Key words: ethics, drones, investigator impact, monitoring, technology, unmanned aerial vehicle


Many colonial-nesting seabird species are highly threatened, and their conservation is a global priority. Yet long-term population data for many species are sporadic, given the location, physical nature of many colonies, and known negative impacts of investigator interaction. The low cost of unmanned aerial systems (UASs), or drones, has democratized access to remote sensing data with high spatial and temporal resolution. Although there are limitations and risks of employing drones for conservation and data-collection purposes, the benefits include the ability to monitor a greater number of colonies at higher spatial and temporal resolutions than traditional field methods. The establishment of drone-operation guidelines, however, is an important first-step in minimizing disturbance to surface-nesting birds, given that many surface-nesting birds are particularly vulnerable to disturbances that can reduce reproductive output and increase stress responses. Research on the disturbance to wildlife from drones is in its infancy, but here we briefly review whether and how studies have evaluated the impact of drones on their study species. We review as well the variability in physiological and behavioural responses observed, and whether the studies evaluated the risk of malfunction or crashes, common with off-the-shelf drone platforms. We found that attention to evaluating disturbance and risk assessments has been limited, but preliminary evidence suggests drones can reduce disturbance impacts on some species. On the other hand, in the face of widespread drone deployment, inexpensive and rapid data collection should not be put ahead of the potential risk and impact on species.


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