Drones help scientists keep tabs on food chain in Antarctica
drones and aerial technology used to gather data on seals in antarctica

Drones help scientists keep tabs on food chain in Antarctica

Drones are being used to measure the length and weight of leopard seals in Antarctica.

The higher you go up the food chain, the more you can learn about the ecosystem as a whole. That thinking is behind a project that has seen marine researchers use drones to collect biological samples from whales, and it’s now underpinning similar efforts on land in Antarctica.

Scientists from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Southwest Fisheries Science Center are using drones to gather data on the predator that best reflects the health of local fish stocks: leopard seals.

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Using a drone to gather seal data

Working with drone company Aerial Imaging Solutions, the NOAA SFCC team have been able to accurately determine the weight and length of leopard seals solely through the use of aerial photography.

Using a drone to hover above the animals, the research team are able to ascertain length and weight measurements accurate to within 2 percent and 4 percent respectively.

As with many drone applications, the biggest factor is the time saved. Traditionally, research teams looking to gather the same information would face hours in the cold attempting to find, capture and immobilize the seals.

A crew of five could take over four hours to catch each of the 15 leopard seals selected for the study. But with the drone, a two-person team only needed 20 minutes to gather the same data. The new method is also a lot less stressful and invasive for the animals, which can only be a good thing.

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Getting more done in less time

“We continue to develop technologies to gather the data we need to manage fish and wildlife in a safer, less expensive way,” said Douglas Krause, lead author of the paper demonstrating the new research method, An accurate and adaptable photogrammetric approach for estimating the mass and body condition of pinnipeds using an unmanned aerial system.

“We’re certainly excited because we can get that much more work done, in less time, and at lower costs than ever before.”

“We can get measurements that are just as good, or better, without ever bothering the animals,” Krause said. “Catching a single seal can take hours, but the drone can photograph every seal on a beach in a few minutes.”

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drones in antarctica, leopard seals
Data gathered from drones on the local leopard seal population reflects the health of the Antarctic ecosystem. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Southwest Fisheries Science Center

Drones have important role to play in Antarctica

By making the collection of data faster, cheaper and more efficient, aerial technology can free up valuable resources for researchers enable them to make a positive difference. In Antarctica, keeping track of a dynamic eco-system is the only way to make informed policy decisions.

“We’re always looking for more efficient ways to collect data that informs decisions on how to manage these important resources,” said George Watters, director of the NOAA’s Antarctic Ecosystem Research Division (AERD).

“The better we understand the ecosystem, the better we can ensure it’s protected for the long term.”

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