Using drones to monitor South Georgia’s wildlife | Polarjournal
Tens of thousands of king penguins populate the St. Andrews Bay area of South Georgia. To have a chance to learn more about the size of the colony here, you need the view from above. Image: Dr Michael Wenger

Opinions differ on the subject of drones. Some see remote-controlled flying machines as a nuisance or even a real danger. Others, however, see them as an important tool when it comes to collecting data over a large area in a relatively short time and in a cost-effective manner. Especially in regions that are difficult to access, so-called biomonitorings can be carried out in this way. That, at least, is the usage approach of the British Antarctic Survey on South Georgia.

Thanks to great conservation efforts, the island south of the Antarctic convergence line has once again developed into a rich animal paradise, where penguins, elephant seals or fur seals populate the beaches in huge colonies. These colonies now even extend far into the hinterland, especially for king penguins and fur seals. To keep track of population sizes, the British Antarctic Survey has resorted to drones, using so-called fixed-wing drones that operate and are piloted beyond the usual line of sight. With this, BAS scientists, in collaboration with the Government of South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands GSGSSI, have begun to collect important data on the various colonies of king and gentoo penguins plus the large aggregations of elephant seals on the island’s beaches.

There is an exemption for research teams to use unmanned remotely piloted aircraft, but this comes with major restrictions and requirements for the equipment and pilots. BAS has now relied for the first time on fixed-wing drones, which have a longer range and can be controlled beyond the line of sight. Image: Jamie Coleman via BAS

The use of unmanned, remotely piloted aerial vehicles UAV on South Georgia is subject to strict and clear rules. While tourists are prohibited from using it, the GSGSSI can issue an exemption for certain commercial and especially scientific works, but with great constraints and requirements for equipment and pilots. BAS’s attempt was now the first to rely on a fixed-wing drone model, rather than the usual quadrocopters. These fixed-wing models have the advantage that they can be used in larger wind forces. In addition, they have a greater flying speed and also range, so they can fly over a larger area. Thanks to an advanced flight control system, such drones can operate out of sight of the pilots, reaching areas of colonies that were previously out of reach for conventional drones. “This new technology with the ability to operate autonomously beyond the visual line of sight, enables us to survey multiple colonies from a single position, minimising our impact on South Georgia’s sensitive ecosystem,” explains Nathan Fenney, a geomatics specialist at BAS who was involved in the expedition.

The use of fixed-wing drones is a great tool to better monitor the results of conservation efforts on South Georgia, according to BAS and GSGSSI experts. This is because they can withstand a range of environmental factors better than the usual four-engine quadrocopters. These include, above all, the rapidly changing wind and weather conditions. Meteorological conditions play an important role in the monitoring of elephant seals in particular, which are found in large numbers on the beaches and backcountry areas of south Georgia, especially in the spring and early summer. Besides, the back part of the beaches is often hardly really walkable and very confusing from the ground. “Many of these colonies have not been surveyed frequently due to cost and difficulty, this advance in technology vastly increases our capability to establish routine monitoring,” says BAS ecologist Philp Hollyman. And Mark Belchier, Head of Environment and Fisheries at GSGSSI is also convinced by the technology: “This exciting collaborative project opens-up the possibility of cost-effective monitoring for a range of iconic species that have breeding colonies at South Georgia. This information is key to establishing baseline data that will help us assess the effectiveness of our extensive marine and terrestrial protected areas over time.”

Trials with different types of drones have also been conducted in Antarctica to test the response of emperor penguins and also the technical aspects of their use. Image: Osama Mustafa, ThINK Jena

Drones have also been used in Antarctica to monitor the various penguin colonies. Using emperor penguins as an example, it was possible to show that, on the one hand, if certain parameters are observed when using the aerial vehicles for scientific purposes, the animals are hardly disturbed. Another study on Adélie colonies in East Antarctica developed new mehtodes that minimize deployment time and also the possibility for potential disturbance to the animals, while still providing new and important insights into the animals’ populations. For the animals of South Georgia and Antarctica, those flying machines seem to be more support than nuisance.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

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