Citizen science and social media impact of ecological research: (IV) Using a drone to measure behaviour and health

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Rare southern right whale calf filmed off WA by MUCRU research team using drones


Welcome! This is the fourth of seven posts in our blog series: “Citizen science and social media impact of ecological research: Study on southern right whales in South West Australia“. In the blog series, we give a citizen science perspective of our collaborative study, with the Marine Bioacoustics Lab from University of Aarhus, Denmark, on southern right whales to help you understand the work done by marine biologists in the field. Please see bottom of this blog post for an overview of future blogs in the series. This fourth post below describes how we use drones to measure the behaviour and health of southern right whales.
The overall aim of developing this blog series is to explore possibilities for communication of marine research activities and study the role of social media and citizen science in ecological research.

(4/7) Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)

Quadcopter unmanned aerial systems (UAS) hovering in the foreground with a humpback whale in the background. Although it appears large, the copter is 500 mm in diameter and 230 mm in height, with landing gear. These platforms, multirotors and fixed-wings are being used to collect data of several types (e.g. photogrammetry, exhalent samples, thermal imagery).

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or UAVs is the technical name for Drones, also called Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVS), or Remotely Piloted Aircrafts (RPAs) in Australia. In the last few years, drones have become a popular leisure, professional and also military device. Non-military drones can fly for over 20 minutes at ~120m above the ground (legal limit in Australia) and can be controlled from a console situated as far as 5 km away from the device. Nowadays it is also possible to acquire a drone that can be controlled from a smartphone for an affordable price (under two hundred Australian dollars). Drones are extensively use for video-recording. The cutting edge models mount high quality HD cameras for professional aerial filmmaking that are very useful for research in outdoors, allowing to obtain images that wouldn’t be possible from a human perspective.


For this study, MUCRU used a DJI Inspire 1 Pro model operated from a research vessel. It is a quadcopter mounted with a Zenmuse 16MP camera. Although it appears large, the size of this drone is 50 cm (diameter) x 23 cm (height), plus the landing gear. These type of drones, multirotors and fixed-wings, are being used in research to collect data of several types, such as photogrammetry, exhalent samples and thermal imagery. We this aspect of our work, we thank GUS for their collaboration and insights.

Requirements to fly a UAV

There are specific requirements in each country in order to use drones for research and/or for professional use. From September 2016 Australia has a new UAV Controller’s certificate. When used for business or research, both the pilot and the business must have a corresponding license to operate the drone. Drones have proved an effective method to obtain images in remote regions at a relatively inexpensive price. They can obtain valuable research information in a less intrusive and safer way than more traditional methods, as shown in the recent MUCRU publication: Noninvasive unmanned aerial vehicle provides estimates of the energetic cost of reproduction in humpback whales.

How to fly a UAV for marine studies

MUCRU is using UAVs to conduct dedicated studies and also as support or complement for marine studies that use other techniques. When used alone, a drone can be operated from a cliff or another elevated area with a good field of vision that allows for a precise control and recovery of the device. In other cases, like the study in Augusta, the drone can also be operated from a research vessel. Normally a single flight takes a little more than 10 minutes and the drone is programmed to automatically come back to the ‘base’ when there is a risk to run out of battery. On a wobbling small boat however, the take-off and landing become more challenging and the piloting skills are decisive for the success of the flights.

Video: Our drone in operation in Augusta.

Using UAV data

The fieldwork in Augusta was planned to use several research methods, including direct observation of whale surface behaviour, tagging to measure fine-scale underwater behaviour and using UAVs for aerial video recording and health assessment. The images obtained from the UAV provide complementary information to the behavioural studies and enable new studies that wouldn’t be possible without the drone.

1. How a drone can help sightseeing and identifying whales

Both from a cliff or a vessel, a drone can help the research team to obtain an aerial close-up of the whales and identify single individuals. As an example, when the team sees whales from the boat, it is not possible to know whether the individuals have already been tagged on previous days or not. Flying the drone over the whales allow to identify single individuals by their unique features and callosities. Callosities are white patches that form on the head of the whales making unique patters for each individual. By keeping the pictures of the whales that have already been tagged for the study and carefully checking the callosities of the new whale, it is possible to know if we are seeing a new individual that can be tagged and become part of the study.

In the following aerial footage, our drone identifies a mum and a white calf in Augusta.


Video: White southern right calf in Augusta

Our footage of the mum and white calf was reported in July and August 2016 in newspapers and on webpages in Australia:

Although not so common, sometimes calves can have a white skin while they are babies and they change colours when they become adults. In this case, spotting white calves doesn’t necessarily mean they are albinos. There are only a few cases in the world of albino whales, one of them is ‘Mingaloo’, an Australian well-known albino humpback whale.

2. Study the movements of the whales

When the vessel is in operation, an important part of the fieldwork consists in directly observe the movements, behaviour and breathing patters of the whales. Here too, our drone makes a very important contribution, complementing the distant-observation from the vessel with aerial images closer to the whales and without interfering in their behaviour. This is particular useful when the whale has been equipped with a tag, since it allows researchers to validate the movement of the whales measured from the tag with actual visual observations from the air. While this has previously been done from visual observations from the boat, the drone provides a much clearer view of the whales without risking to disturb them from the boat.

3. Standalone study on body conditions using photographs

Finally, thanks to the use of the drone, our team has been able to conduct new studies on the changes in the body condition of the whales during breeding. As we mentioned in a previous post, during the breeding time the mothers are fasting while the calves grow big on their mother’s nutrient rich milk. By obtaining and analysing images of the mums and calves along the breeding period, it is possible to measure changes in their body conditions and understand how the mum’s condition affects the growth and development of the calf. Understanding the relationship between maternal condition and calf growth is important, as it provides a link between the animals health and their reproduction.

Measuring body condition of Southern Right Whales

Analysis of body condition using software and the photographs taken by UAV


Our studies in Augusta and Head of Bight are the first to apply UAV technology and photogrammetry methods to assess body condition in southern right whales. Compared with other research methods, UAVs are safer, cheaper, and more respectful with marine life. Given the rapid acceleration in drone technology, we expect the use of these systems to increase for behavioural as well as other marine research applications.

Thanks to the contributors to this post:
Dr. Fredrik Christiansen and Prof. Lars Bejder, Murdoch University

We also thank Interspacial Aviation Services Pty Ltd, Perth and Global Unmanned Systems for their support of our research.


You can navigate through previous sections of the blog series via the below links:

Citizen science and social media impact of ecological research: Study on southern right whales in South West Australia

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Thank you!

Victor Alvarez PhD
Victor Alvarez PhD
Senior Research Fellow at Murdoch University, Western Australia
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