Drones can provide a more precise picture of nesting seabird colonies than traditional methods used in wildlife conservation, according to a Australian study of polar and tropical birds.

The study, published in Nature Scientific Reports, highlighted the potential of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to survey birds and other animals, particularly in remote areas.

Lead author PhD candidate Mr Jarrod Hodgson said: “This is a fast moving area of science and we’re very excited that we could quantify that the technique can be more precise.

“Until now we didn’t really know how precise drone technology was at monitoring changes in population size.”

Wading Birds Call Mexico’s Alcatraz Home: Photos

Mr Hodgson and colleagues from Monash University captured high definition photographs of colonies of nesting frigate birds and crested terns on Ashmore Reef off the coast of Western Australia using an off-the-shelf octocopter.

They also used a fixed-wing drone to study a colony of royal penguins on Macquarie Island near Antarctica.

The researchers then systematically counted the number of birds in the images.

This data was compared to ground-level counts of the three colonies taken at the same time using traditional techniques.

9 Stunning Aerial Images Captured By Drones: Photos

The researchers found the estimates made from the images captured by drones were consistently similar or larger than ground-based counts. There was less variation in the number of birds identified by people trawling through the photos.

“The downward-facing perspective of drone imagery reduces the likelihood of missed counts due to topography and birds obscuring the counters’ line of sight,” explained Mr Hodgson.

The still photos also allow researchers to zoom into a smaller area of the colony, and complete the count over a longer timeframe.

Killer Whales Spied From Drone’s Eye View: Photos

Although Mr Hodgson does not see drones replacing traditional techniques in the short-term, he said the technology gave researchers and environmental managers more power to monitor wildlife.

“In the time of increasing human development and species extinctions we consider that drones will be a very useful tool for conservation in the future.

“We’re excited by the results but we’re very conscious there still needs to be much more research in this area.”

Drone images of this colony of royal penguins (Jarrod Hodgson

Professor Stuart Phinn of the Remote Sensing Research Centre at the University of Queensland said the study built on what had been done in the field in the past.

"It would be good to see a lot more people do that because unfortunately a lot of UAV and satellite work is 'gee whizz, look at this we can do all of this stuff, its more cost effective and efficient' and they don't have the evidence for it.

"Whereas this study did go a long way on showing how it could build on what's being done traditionally, not necessarily completely replace it."

Drone Takes Dog For Walkies

Professor Richard Kingsford of the University of New South Wales also welcomed the study.

"One of the things we're beginning to understand more and more is just how important these tools are," said Professor Kingsford, who conducts an annual survey of waterbirds in eastern Australia.

But while he said drone-based technology may eventually replace ground counts for colonies of single species of birds, monitoring large populations of moving birds could be more difficult.

"You've got this problem of focal length where you've got lots of different species flying at different levels and the eye is just so good at ... identifying them very quickly.

"Even with ground-based surveys there is always going to be this challenge if the birds are flying," he said.

Future Drones Could Mimic Birds And Bats

The next step for Mr Hodgson, who is now based at the University of Adelaide, is to study the impact of drones on the birds.

"We don't fully understand how drones might affect animal behaviour," said Mr Hodgson, who hopes to develop protocols for using drones around wildlife.

"We believe these protocols will help to ensure that people — not just researchers but the general public — don't disturb wildlife unintentionally when they're flying drones.

Article first appeared on ABC Science Online.