A bird's-eye view of the ocean

Autonomous vehicles are helping many scientists monitor marine animals. But as they become cheaper and easier to use, will they disrupt the wildlife we seek to protect?  

Marine biologist Ticiana Fettermann and a colleague launch a drone for dolphin-tracking research. © Ticiana Fettermann (used with permission) 

Marine biologist Ticiana Fettermann and a colleague launch a drone for dolphin-tracking research. © Ticiana Fettermann (used with permission) 


Imagine what would happen if a small plane or a boat full of scientists started following you everywhere you went. The noise from the engines alone would be distracting; at the very least, you would have to yell over them to be heard. But the experience of being monitored might alter your behaviour in even more profound and unexpected ways. Unfortunately, following research subjects in noisy planes and boats was one of the few methods available to researchers who wanted to understand marine animals' behaviour. The rapid growth of autonomous drones offers an alternative to following animals in a biplane, but may introduce some new regulatory challenges for the conservationists tasked with protecting our oceans.

Despite the tidal wave of recent buzz, drones have been in use for military and industrial processes for decades since the Second World War. 40 years ago, very large drones were already being deployed from ships to repair or service underwater pipelines. Over time, drones have become smaller, easier to use, and more accessible to the layman.

Aerial drones are now easy to purchase from hobby stores, and, in some cases, toy shops. Which is cool, but this easy availability also has its risks when people use them for filming and photography —especially in nature, as they may interfere with what scientists are trying to achieve in terms of conservation monitoring. Guidelines for their safe use in this regard are likely going to become a necessity.

Ethical concerns

Drones are inexpensive and becoming more resilient, and, as a result, a number of enthusiasts are taking advantage of the technology to get amazing photographs of marine animals from the air. Without a permit, these people are likely breaking the regulations of the U.S.’s Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), which restricts human interaction with whales, dolphins, and other animals such as sea lions and seals, at least in American waters.

Auckland University of Technology masters student Ticiana Fettermann is on a mission to develop a similar set of recommended guidelines for the use of drone technology in marine conservation in New Zealand. There are currently a few regulations for drone use in New Zealand, but they only cover the use of drones over land, not over the open ocean.

Fettermann is hoping to provide relevant information for policy makers to reduce disturbance caused to marine animals during monitoring. She is trying to identify recommended use parameters — such as the distance a drone can safely get to monitor the animals without disturbing their behaviour, an ideal flight time to reduce disturbances, and whether certain sizes of drone are more appropriate for monitoring marine animals. However, this research is new, and there are many more potential aspects to explore before such ocean drone use guidelines can be written.

Ticiana Fettermann on the deck of a research vessel. © Ticiana Fettermann (used with permission)

Ticiana Fettermann on the deck of a research vessel. © Ticiana Fettermann (used with permission)


However, the need for these guidelines is growing, because drones are becoming more and more accessible to non-scientists and other non-technical users. On the plus side, drones are a good way for people to explore their environment and learn about some of the amazing animals that live in our oceans. Drones can also eliminate the need for other methods that cause bigger disturbances, such as aerial surveys and boat surveys. Nonetheless, despite drones having a lower overall impact, they still have the potential to alter animal behaviour, such as feeding, breeding, sleeping and navigation.

For example, sound travels better in air than in water, so although a drone may sound relatively quiet (and a lot quieter than a plane or boat) to listeners above the water's surface, it may sound much louder to a marine animal. Some animals may even be deterred from a particular food source or spooked by constant drone activity. Unfortunately, many enthusiasts overlook this problem. Even the activity of scientists conducting research for conservation purposes can cause a certain level of disturbance.

Fettermann says drones are not toys, but aircraft. They require a competent pilot, especially when cetaceans and other vulnerable animals are involved. Fettermann conducts her research using a specially designed drone capable of landing and taking off from the water’s surface, and is testing the effects of drones on dolphin behaviour. She wants to find out at what distance and time frame drones can be used to monitor them safely, with minimal negative impacts. Fettermann’s colleague Dr Barbara Breen is also studying the use of drones for marine conservation. Her previous cetacean surveying work was limited to surveying them from a “stuffy, noisy and overall scary small” plane.

Following her postgraduate study, Breen decided to reach out to those in the know regarding a better method of tracking whales and dolphins. Since then, she has moved forward to work with scientists like Fettermann to develop a best practice approach on how to fly drones safely and ethically to protect the animals being surveyed.

How have drones changed the way we do science?

Drones have revolutionised the way scientists map biodiversity. Flying at low altitudes over choppy seas is dangerous for scientists and pilots but also necessary to see the animals. Satellite imagery is limited by cloud cover and therefore not a good option in cloudy regions like New Zealand.

Research vessels are still the most widely used method for following marine animals, but they limit the viewing of animals to only one dimension. Typically, scientists have to trail the animals they study from a distance, because the presence of boats and the associated noise they create can be so distressing.

Drones, on the other hand, can be the perfect alternative for scientists. They are affordable, allow the collection of repeatable results, and can survey and measure entire systems without leaving any footprints. Therefore, moving towards drone technology is highly favoured in the scientific community. Drones can also be deployed from land, sometimes eliminating the need for an associated research vessel. If a boat is still required, drones have a long range, so scientists can still collect the relevant data via high definition cameras and audio recorders without sailing a noisy boat through the animals’ habitat.

In the case of Breen’s research, drones allow scientists to create landscape maps by stitching high definition images together and making virtual reality setups for the management of the surveyed areas. These stitched images comprise a virtual reality where such environments can be viewed digitally by many, without them all disturbing the animals and their habitat by physically entering the environments, which is a great step forward. Remote drone use makes many amazing locations more accessible to non-scientists, too, limiting the need for as many amateur drone users.

Drones also allow researchers to observe places too dangerous to fly a plane full of humans into and enter spaces that are too small for large boats to enter. In fact, they can map at such fine scales that things like moss and lichen colonies can be seen in the valleys of Antarctica. These 3D images may also decrease the need for a tourism market in vulnerable habitats such as the Ross Sea, as people will be able to enter such environments via a virtual reality platform instead.

A drone flies toward a setting sun. Aaron Burden/Unsplash (CC0 1.0)

A drone flies toward a setting sun. Aaron Burden/Unsplash (CC0 1.0)


Breen and her team recently mapped Cape Evans in Antarctica using drones and high tech cameras in just a few days, leaving minimal human footprints. In previous decades, this same task would have been done on foot and taken months or even years to complete, leaving many footprints, which, like the remains of the late Robert Scott’s visit in 1912, would stay there for hundreds of years. Amazingly, the 3D mosaics that Breen’s team were able to create revealed seal tracks, the marks left by seals sliding around on their bellies through snow and ice.

Another recent project of hers is investigating the behaviour of humpback whales in relation to tourism vessels in Tonga, without the added disturbance of a research boat following close by. They also mapped sea turtle habitats and the seabird nesting sites nearby in an Australian site.

Scientists couldn’t do what we do now without drones, and it is not contradictory to use robotics for conservation; it complements the field perfectly and overshadows other high impact methods. Such projects using drones could even improve the ability for policy makers to make better informed decisions about an area’s future management.

Edited by Diana Crow