Best practices for using drones in seabird monitoring and research

Over the past decade, drones have become increasingly popular in environmental biology and have been used to study wildlife on all continents. Drones have become of global importance for surveying breeding seabirds by providing opportunities to transform monitoring techniques and allow new research on some of the most threatened birds. However, such fast-changing and increasingly available technology presents challenges to regulators responding to requests to carry out surveys and to researchers ensuring their work follows best practice and meets legal and ethical standards. Following a workshop convened at the 14th International Seabird Group Conference and a subsequent literature search, we collate information from over 100 studies and present a framework to ensure drone-seabird surveys are safe, effective, and within the law. The framework comprises eight steps: (1) Objectives and Feasibility; (2) Technology and Training; (3) Site Assessment and Permission; (4) Disturbance Mitigation; (5) Pre-deployment Checks; (6) Flying; (7) Data Handling and Analysis; and (8) Reporting. The audience is wide-ranging with sections having relevance for different users, including prospective and experienced drone-seabird pilots, landowners, and licensors. Regulations vary between countries and are frequently changing, but common principles exist. Taking-off, landing, and conducting in-flight changes in altitude and speed at ≥ 50 m from the study area, and flying at ≥ 50 m above ground-nesting seabirds/horizontal distance from vertical colonies, should have limited disturbance impact on many seabird species; however, surveys should stop if disturbance occurs. Compared to automated methods, manual or semi-automated image analyses are, at present, more suitable for infrequent drone surveys and surveys of relatively small colonies. When deciding if drone-seabird surveys are an appropriate monitoring method long-term, the cost, risks, and results obtained should be compared to traditional field monitoring where possible. Accurate and timely reporting of surveys is essential to developing adaptive guidelines for this increasingly common technology.


Publication status:
Authors: Edney, A.J., Hart, T., Jessopp, M.J., Banks, A., Clarke, L.E., Cugniere, L., Elliot, K.H., Martinez, I.J., Kilcoyne, A., Murphy, M., Nager, R.G., Ratcliffe, N. ORCIDORCID record for N. Ratcliffe, Thompson, D.L., Ward, R.M., Wood, M.J.

On this site: Norman Ratcliffe
15 October, 2023
Marine Ornithology / 51
16pp / 265-280