Advanced drone tech takes dugong monitoring to new heights

Murdoch University scientists are adapting surveying and mining drone technology to make their dugong research faster and more cost effective.

Dr Christophe Cleguer recently tested the vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) fixed-wing WingtraOne unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) off remote Pilbara coastal areas.

He found the drone could rapidly survey a 50km2 area, flying higher than the standard small multirotor drones they also tested.

The images collected could then be quickly processed on board the research vessel, by both manually reviewing the images and using a ‘dugong detector’, which is an automated detection algorithm under development.

“This ultra-rapid method meant the research team could create maps of dugong sightings and densities in just a few days. Previously this has taken several weeks,” said Dr Cleguer.

“The fact we could launch, operate and land the drone from a small space on the boat meant we could survey very remote areas for dugongs, which are not easily accessible from the land.

“Over the three week trip to test our methods, the research team conducted more than 90 flights and collected over 25,000 images, most of which were processed during the trip.”

Dr Cleguer said there was a need to develop methods that rapidly and cheaply monitor populations of endangered marine species like dugongs so that timely and effective management approaches could be implemented.

Vulnerable habitats

Dugongs are internationally recognised as vulnerable to extinction throughout most of their range, so it is important to identify and protect important dugong habitats such as their seagrass foraging grounds off the WA coast.

“Recently, considerable efforts have been made by scientists and resource managers to help conserve dugongs and their seagrass habitats, particularly in light of the likely increase in extreme heat events and cyclones that can cause extensive damage to seagrass habitat,” Dr Cleguer said.

“However, many of these research and management initiatives are hampered by time, high cost and the expertise required to monitor dugong populations.”

Dr Hodgson also uses a military drone worth more than US$1 million, the ScanEagle, launched via catapult from the land, to generate aerial images to investigate dugong detection rates in large scale trial surveys in the Shark Bay region. This UAV required a highly trained crew to operate it.

With a price tag of less than $30,000, the WingtraOne is a more cost effective solution for smaller scale surveys, and they can be flown by the researchers themselves.

Accessible tech

Dr Cleguer and Dr Hodgson said this kind of technology would be more accessible to scientists in developing countries who wanted to conduct rapid local surveys of species in remote areas.

“This is a completely new concept in marine mammal research, as we can survey very intensely over small areas and survey repeatedly, without having to pay the huge costs normally associated with chartering aircraft,” they said.

“These advantages require us to rethink the methods we normally use for marine fauna surveys but will also allow us to answer different questions relevant to species conservation and management.”

The WingtraOne is more usually used by surveying and mining companies to conduct aerial surveys over quarries, fields, mines; and in forestry, precision agriculture to monitor plants and detect diseases. This is the first time it has been used from a boat to survey marine fauna.

The fieldwork was part of a collaborative project funded by the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions and Murdoch University. It also involved seagrass specialists from Edith Cowan University who used the data from the drone surveys to collect information on the characteristics of the habitats where dugongs were detected but also where they were not seen.
Posted on:

18 Jul 2018

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