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."
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.
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.
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."