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Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: a new technique for surveying marine mammals

Hodgson, A.ORCID: 0000-0002-9479-3018 (2011) Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: a new technique for surveying marine mammals. In: AMSA2011: 48th Annual Conference of the Australian Marine Science Association, 3-7 July 2011, Fremantle, Western Australia.


Aerial surveys of marine mammals are routinely conducted within Australia and internationally to assess and monitor their habitat use and population status. This information is critical for conserving and managing human impacts on these species. In Australia, dugongs (dugong dugon) and humpback (Megaptera novaeangliae) whales are the most regularly surveyed using this method. The datasets produced from dugong aerial surveys have formed the basis of dugong density models that predict their critical habitat and allows for risk assessments. Aerial surveys have become increasingly used to provide baseline data and in monitoring to assess the impacts of new developments. However, the surveys are best suited for providing information over large spatial scales, and there are limitations in the temporal and spatial scale to which these surveys can detect changes in abundance and distribution of populations. The potential for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to improve surveys and provide an alternative technique to assessing marine mammal populations and habitat use is currently being investigated. The first Australian UAV survey trial was conducted in Shark Bay, Western Australia in September 2010. Insitu Pacific Ltd programmed a ScanEagle UAV with a digital SLR camera payload to fly a set of transects over a 1.296 km2 area known to be frequented by dugongs. Dugongs, dolphins, turtles, whales and other marine fauna were successfully identified, and detection of marine fauna under various environmental conditions and at a range of altitudes was assessed. UAVs have the potential to increase the accuracy of detection, location and identification of species by providing a permanent, high resolution, visual records of sightings and an exact GPS position of each animal within an image. This technique eliminates issues related to availability of experienced observers and fatigue during surveys. UAVs surveys can also be conducted over a smaller spatial scale than manned surveys as the aircraft can fly lower and maintain more precise flight paths. This means that an area of interest can be surveyed at high intensity to obtain detailed marine fauna use of the area. Other advantages of UAVs include eliminating human risk and potentially reducing costs of aerial surveys.

Item Type: Conference Item
Murdoch Affiliation(s): Centre for Fish and Fisheries Research
School of Biological Sciences and Biotechnology
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