Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Call to Minimise Drone Impact on Wildlife

Environmental researchers have called for a code of best practice for the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) in wildlife monitoring, protection and field research.

While drones have become a useful tool for field research, leading to their increasing use, a University of Adelaide report published in Current Biology has warned that the technology could also have undesirable and unforeseen impacts on wildlife, with little current understanding of the risks involved.

“Even though an animal might not appear to be disturbed, it could be quite stressed, said coauthor Mr Jarrod Hodgson of the University’s Unmanned Research Aircraft Facility. “For example, a bird may choose to remain near a UAV even when stressed because it is incubating an egg or protecting its hatchling.

“It is likely that animal responses vary depending on a variety of factors including the species, environmental and historical context, as well as the type of UAV and its method of operation.”

Considering the growing popularity of UAVs as a tool among field biologists, and the potential for negative impacts on wildlife, Hodgson says that steps need to be taken to minimise and manage the risk. “A code of best practice will allow informed use of UAVs while mitigating or alleviating potential wildlife disturbance,” he says.

Hodgson and coauthor A/Prof Lian Pin Koh have made a number of recommendations for such a code of best practice applying to the use of drones in the vicinity of animals. They consider this code should be a first and guiding step in the development of species-specific protocols to reduce potential disturbance to wildlife. Their recommendations cover:

  • adopting a precautionary principle in lieu of evidence;
  • utilising institutional animal ethics processes to provide oversight;
  • complying with civil aviation regulations;
  • regular maintenance and training;
  • selecting appropriate UAVs for the job;
  • exercising minimum wildlife disturbance flight practices, and ceasing operations if they are disruptive; and
  • publishing detailed reports of methods and results.

“Such techniques will assist in understanding, managing and conserving our planet’s biodiversity, and maximise the potential of UAVs as a powerful, low impact ecological survey tool,” Hodgson says.