Aerial drones, if not used safely, appropriately and responsibly, have the potential to significantly impact a variety of species’ health and fitness via acute or chronic disturbances to migratory patterns, breeding, feeding or sheltering. This has led scientists and resource managers to grow increasingly concerned about the proliferation of affordable drones and their potential impacts to wildlife.
Addressing these concerns, nonprofit group Oceans Unmanned, Inc. has unveiled a new program, termed ECO-Drone, for Environmentally Conscious Operations, which partners with federal and state agencies, industry and education institutions to develop and communicate “best practices” to minimize or eliminate resource disturbance issues due to scientific or recreational drone operations.
“Inexpensive, off-the-shelf drones have the potential to revolutionize biological monitoring and inspire a whole new generation to research, explore and photograph our ocean coastlines and marine environment,” said Matt Pickett, Director of Oceans Unmanned, “but they also pose a challenge to wildlife, as previously inaccessible habitats are exposed to new disturbances. ECO-Drone will engage and educate the user community to ensure all wildlife and their habitats are respected and protected.”
Oceans Unmanned said the program, which will initially focus on coastal and marine resources before expanding to address terrestrial disturbance issues, has three primary goals: increase public awareness of existing marine resource protection regulations and policies that apply to research and recreational drone use; engage and educate recreational drone operators to respect ocean wildlife; and encourage federal and state marine resource management agencies to modernize and refine existing policies and regulations to address the potential disturbance of drone use.
While the disturbance potential for manned aircraft and helicopters has been well documented and studied, the research on drone and wildlife interaction is just beginning amid mounting concern that this new technology will expose previously inaccessible habitats to aerial disturbance with real consequences. As an example, just one flushing event of a bird off a nest can cause the loss off eggs or chicks and significantly impact a colony.
"We are thrilled with ECO-Drone's efforts to develop best practices for drone operators,” said Paul Hobi, Seabird Protection Network Program Manager, “Seabirds are especially sensitive to drones, and operators can be good stewards of nature by avoiding sensitive wildlife colonies."
The first two projects underway are a direct outreach campaign and an education partnership. Oceans Unmanned said it is working with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to distribute informational postcards about drone etiquette at coastal access points along the central California coast. In addition, Oceans Unmanned has partnered with DARTdrones, the national leader in drone training and consultation, in development of an ECO-Drone training module to educate drone operators at the beginning of their careers and businesses.
“DARTdrones is focused on training drone pilots to become safe, effective and smart sUAS operators. Beyond understanding a drone's capabilities, pilots need to be aware of their surrounds and their impact on local wildlife and various eco-systems,” stated Ellen Clauss, Innovation Manager for DARTdrones. “We are delighted to partner with Oceans Unmanned on the ECO-Drone program to promote and uphold these values and foster respect for the environments in which sUAS are flying."