A safer approach to studying wildlife : the Drone

Scientists in Montana are using drones to study osprey (Pandion haliaetus).  The nest under this new form of surveillance is at the top of a 30m pole.  Researcher James Junda pilots his UAV up and over that nest.  The buzzing annoys the male osprey and it engages the drone.  Suffering lacerations to its body the small aircraft spirals down to the road crash landing. In the field, scientists sometimes have to put themselves in dangerous situations like 30m up in close proximity to a territorial osprey.

Drones are being used by a range of scientists around the world.  Helicopters, fixed wing and subs monitor the health of ecosystems, often operating in challenging or dangerous areas.  I learned about the many ways an unassuming biologist could meet an early end in a paper by [D. Blake Sasse] “The methods used by early naturalists to obtain information and specimens were often dangerous.”  Common causes of death included small airplane and helicopter crashes as well as motor vehicle accidents. Many of these deaths occurred under dangerous conditions where using an autonomous vehicle might have been safer.



Sasse, D.B.  2003.  Job-Related Mortality of Wildlife Workers in the United States, 1937-2000.  Wildlife Society Bulletin.  31(4): 1015–1020.

Averett, N.  2014.  Drones take off as wildlife conservation tool.  Audubon Website.  Accessed February 10, 2016.  Note: this story originally appeared in the July-August 2014 edition of Audubon Magazine as “Eyes in the Sky.”


  1. Wait so are they flying the drone are the birds to annoy them on purpose or is that just a latent effect? And very true autonomous flying would prove to be safer but then we are trusting it all the the computer and even computers make mistakes. I think just being out in nature it self can be dangerous sometimes, but the benefits for acquiring the knowledge is worth it.

  2. Corey Greenfield

    A broken drone is better then a broken scientist. Hopefully the FAA will see it that way and make it easier, policy wise, for scientists to carry out research using drones. Not all research involves counting harmless cute little bunny rabits, research can be dangerous, all the more reason to utilize UAVs for research.

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