Drones are wonderful tools for research when in the right hands, but Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard thinks that this new flying fad can be dangerous when in the hands of the naive and unskilled.
Barrett-Lennard believes his research at the Vancouver Aquarium, which uses a hexacopter (six rotors) to fly over the southern resident killer whales in British Columbia, justifies the use of drone technology.
The study looks to determine if this population of whales are eating enough by gauging how fat they are and which salmon populations are integral to their diet.
“We have a critically endangered population of killer whales (southern residents). This population can’t sustain itself. If we can say that ‘These are the salmon runs that are important to them’ and provide that information to the government, they will be compelled to act on it. It has its conservation value and that’s how I justify it.”
But, he said, some recreational and commercial drone flyers have harmed wildlife.
Drones induce a stress responses in animals
A study released in August by the University of Minnesota showed that when researchers flew drones above the heads of black bears, the heart rate of almost all bears shot up a statistically significant amount – one bear exhibited a 400-per-cent increase.
Barrett-Lennard said there is no sign that the drones he is using are causing the same level of stress.
“I don’t think we’re disturbing [the orcas] much partly because we’re not even getting a curiosity response. When they are curious about something they usually roll over to check it out, and that hasn’t happened.”
But he warned that lack of a behavioural change is not always a true indicator of the level of animal stress.
“Wild animals are good at disguising a lot of things,” he said. “If you go out and do something and an animal changes its behaviour and you can measure it, then you know you’ve changed it. But if you don’t pick up any behavioural difference, you can’t conclude that you haven’t disturbed it. You just haven’t disturbed it in a way you can detect.”
Of course, sometimes the stress is obvious.
In May 2014, a drone was illegally flown within the borders of Zion National Park in Utah.
The drone harassed a herd of big horn sheep, causing them to disperse, resulting in young sheep being separated from adults.
Wildlife biologist Cassie Waters stated in the press release, “Drones can also change the natural behaviour of wildlife and lead to unnecessary energy expenditures. This has the potential to affect survival and reproductive success in many species.”
Drones can cause physical harm to wildlife
In South Africa, Barret-Lennard witnessed shoddy flight practices.
“I was down on a research project, and some filming was being done of dolphins where a drone was five feet above the water and the dolphins were leaping out of the water and there was a potential for collision.”
The internet is filled with examples of bad interactions between drones and wildlife.
One YouTube video shows an eagle attacking a drone after being disturbed by it. (Other animals attacking drones included kangaroos and chimpanzees.) Birds are far less robust than whales, so collision with the aircraft (or spinning rotor blades) can injure or kill these animals.
Commercial use of drones can be disastrous
If whale-watching companies get their hands on drones, Barrett-Lennard has reason to believe that the results could be disastrous.
“Whale watching is a big industry in B.C.… and every whale-watching company would love to have a drone as well,” he said. “But if you’re going to have multiple drones flying over the whales you’re going to have collisions and it’s going to get out of control and they’ll get banned.”
He has reason for concern. According to drone hobbyist Amiel De Guzman, drones can act up when flying too close to each other.
“If you’re flying the same model and system, that could cause some problems from interference,” said De Guzman, who encountered technical problems with just two drones in the air. “We had the same exact drone, and one of my wires short-circuited and I lost my feed… I was seeing his camera feed and he was seeing my feed.” Meaning that both operators lost control of their machines since they could not see where they were going.
Flying too close to animals illegal in some places
Washington State is doling out fines for flying too closely to killer whales. In late August, two men received the first ever tickets for flying too closely to a pod of orcas. This violated Section 77.15.740 of Washington law, which prohibits “a vessel or other object to approach, in any manner, within two hundred yards of a southern resident orca whale.”
Despite being fined, the offenders still have their video on Youtube to promote their photography business.