Unmanned Aircraft Systems in Wildlife Research: Current and Future Applications of a Transformative Technology


Known by several names, drones are emerging as a tool to provide a safe, cost-effective, and quiet alternative to traditional research methods. The strengths and weaknesses of drones have been assessed based on cases where drones were used to document wildlife populations, behavior, and habitat. While there are many restrictions on the use of drones due to flight range and regulatory framework, the case studies show that drones are most effective for examining smaller areas.


Prior to the use of drones, manned aircraft and helicopters have been used to survey wildlife. While providing highly accurate results, in some cases these tools have been found to disturb wildlife behavior either through noise levels or their very presence. Equally common are ground-based surveys that, in some cases, are less accurate and less cost effetive while having minimal impact on wildlife behavior.

Related Methods

Case study research is used to conduct an in-depth investigation of an issue at a specific instance and location.
GIS is a compilation of hardware, software, and data that enables users to manipulate, analyze, and display geographically referenced information. GIS is used to document human use patterns, identifying culturally sensitive areas, prioritizing regions for additional public access, or highlighting demographic trends within a community.
Observation is an information-gathering technique based on personal or recorded observation through systematic documentation of visible social activity and behavior.
A standardized list of questions that may be administered formally or informally by mail, telephone, Internet, or in person to collect specific information from multiple individuals.

Discussion of Results

This paper compares survey results and impacts with manned aircraft and ground-based surveys. The main findings of the case studies show:

  • Drones (Unmanned aircraft systems - UAS) are increasingly common in wildlife research as cost effective, quiet, and safe tools.
  • Most studies recorded minimal or no visible change in behavior of wildlife. However, dronees can cause physiological responses in wildlife at close range.
  • Drones can replace tranditional surveys of wildlife and provide highly accurate data.
  • The best uses of drones are for studies where they can be launched nearby a small area of observation.
  • Technological advances and a more streamlined regulatory process will help transform the future collection of ecological information.

Related Partners

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