How Thousands Of Rubber Ducks Helped Prove Drone Technology’s Place In Environmental Science

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Drones are becoming an increasingly invaluable tool to help monitor wildlife. However, just like any new technology, it has its skeptics.

So, to assess the skills and accuracy of new drone technology compared to traditional counting methods, biologists in Australia headed to the beach with thousands of rubber ducks, an aerial drone, a few citizen scientists, and a computer algorithm for what became known as the #EpicDuckChallenge. 

“For a few years now, drones have been used to monitor different animals that can be seen from above, including elephants, seals, and nesting birds. But, until now, the accuracy of using drones to count wildlife was unclear,” Jarrod Hodgson from the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute and School of Biological Sciences said in a statement.

“We needed to test the technology where we knew the correct answer. We couldn’t use wild animals because we could never be sure of the real number of individuals present.”

In true Aussie style, the researchers headed to a local beach in Adelaide with thousands of decoy ducks. For the challenge, they pitted experienced wildlife experts armed with binoculars or telescopes against a group of citizen scientists using aerial photographs gathered by quadcopter drone. The drone-wielding amateurs won with ease, indicating that drones are more accurate than traditional counting approaches.

Next up, the researchers compared old-fashioned binoculars or telescopes to a computer algorithm that counted the ducks automatically. Low and behold, the computer also won and was just as good as humans at reviewing the imagery. 

“Our results show that monitoring animals with drones produces better data that we can use to proactively manage wildlife,” Hodgson said. The results are published in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution.

Aerial drones are already revolutionizing the way many scientists study the environment and its wildlife. Not only are they more effective (that’s now proven), they are less intrusive and minimize disturbances. They also create some incredibly beautiful imagery.

“With so many animals across the world facing extinction, our need for accurate wildlife data has never been greater,” Hodgson pointed out. “Accurate monitoring can detect small changes in animal numbers. That is important because if we had to wait for a big shift in those numbers to notice the decline, it might be too late to conserve a threatened species.”

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