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A novel method for using small unoccupied aerial vehicles to survey wildlife species and model their density distribution

Cleguer, C., Kelly, N., Tyne, J.ORCID: 0000-0002-0676-5659, Wieser, M., Peel, D. and Hodgson, A.ORCID: 0000-0002-9479-3018 (2021) A novel method for using small unoccupied aerial vehicles to survey wildlife species and model their density distribution. Frontiers in Marine Science, 8 . Art. 640338.

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There is growing interest from research and conservation groups in the potential for using small unoccupied aerial vehicles (UAVs; <2 kg) to conduct wildlife surveys because they are affordable, easy to use, readily available and reliable. However, limitations such as short flight endurance, and in many situations, aviation regulations, have constrained the use of small UAVs in survey applications. Thus, there is a need to refine survey methods adapted to small UAVs that conform to standard operations within aviation law. We developed a novel survey approach based on a grid sampling design using two multirotor UAVs (Phantom 4 Pros) flying simultaneously, within visual line of sight, from our vessel base-station. We used this approach to assess the fine-scale distribution and abundance of dugongs (Dugong dugon) in the remote waters of the Pilbara, Western Australia during three field seasons across 2 years. We surveyed 64 non-overlapping survey cells in random order one or more times and obtained complete image coverage of each surveyed cell of our 31 km2 survey area. Our sampling design maximizes sampling effort while limiting survey time by surveying four cells, two at a time, from one location. Overall, we conducted 240 flights with up to 17 flights per day (mean = 14 flights per day) and could obtain complete coverage of up to 11.36 km2per day. A total of 149 dugongs were sighted within the 50,482 images which we manually reviewed. Spatially-explicit models of dugong density distribution (corrected for availability and perception bias) were produced using general additive models to identify areas more or less used by dugongs (range of corrected dugong densities across all field season = 0.002–1.79 dugongs per 0.04 km2). Dugong abundance estimates ranged from 47 individuals in June 2019 (CV = 0.17) to 103 individuals in May 2018 (CV = 0.36). Our method, which proved convincing in a real-word application by its feasibility, ease of implementation, and achievable surface coverage has the potential to be used in a wide range of applications from community-based local-scale surveys, to long-term repeated/intensive surveys, and impact assessments and environmental monitoring studies.

Item Type: Journal Article
Murdoch Affiliation(s): Harry Butler Institute
Centre for Sustainable Aquatic Ecosystems
Publisher: Frontiers Media
Copyright: © 2021 The Authors.
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