Birds, Drones, and Humans: How to share airspace.
by Alicia Amerson
The FAA approved drone flights below 400ft Above Ground Level (AGL).
Did you know over 500 species of birds have been recorded in San Diego County?
I was surprised by this number. I know it's a great place for humans to live, but birds also like the temperate mediterranean weather.
About 300 species stay in the area all year. I was curious to know what types of birds live in San Diego based on habitat preferences. Do they live in town, by the beaches, in the mountains, use the lagoons, make a home in oak woodlands, and prefer the deserts. Like many species birds choose different habitats to live, and many different habitats are home to different species of birds. While some birds are found in nearly every habitat, others are restricted to only a few, or even just one specific habitat.
READER ALERT: To keep this a bit more simple, I am going to talk about three bird species I've seen recently.
The smallest bird I encounter daily is the Anna's Hummingbird, we have multiple bird feeders in the yard and one directly by my office window. These birds use the trees around my home to nest and rest. In the evenings I've heard many different drones buzzing through the neighborhood and I wonder how these smaller birds are impacted.
This hummingbird formerly a California and northern Baja California endemic species has now extended it's range north to British Columbia and east to Arizona. They were able to do this because hummingbirds are nectar feeders and humans have provided opportunities for them to forage on non-native winter-flowering plants. There are several other hummingbirds in the region, but the Anna Hummingbird is the only one that is widespread throughout the year. The small bird has a green back and rump. Males have a beautiful red neck that glimmers in the sunlight. Other hummingbirds in San Diego are: Costa's Hummingbird, Allen's Hummingbird, Rufous Hummingbird, Black-chinned Hummingbird.
Two shorebirds I've seen often this winter are the Marbled Godwit & Whimbrel
The Marbled Godwit is a large salmon-colored shorebird with the long upturned bill. This bird breeds in the northern Great Plains and winters coastally here in San Diego. This bird also likes the temperate weather in San Diego, so a number of non-breeding birds also summer on the California coast. The breeding population typically stay in San Diego region from fall to spring. They prefer salt water habitats where they forage for food by probing in shallow water and soft mud for aquatic insects and mollusks. It also catches grasshoppers and other insects in grassy areas. so they are found primarily either on the beach or in the lagoons.
Whimbrels have a long downward-curving bill, marbled brown feathers and dark streaks on top of the head. It is easy and distinctive on the shoreline. Although it's often mistaken for a long-billed curlew. Curlews have a much longer beak and lack the dark streaks on the crown of the head. As one of the larger shorebirds, standing nearly 18 inches high with long neck and legs, it stands out when feeding along the beach. The whimbrel spends summers along the North Slope of Alaska and then migrates south as winter snows arrive. They winter on the beaches in San Diego.
Check out my Tweet/Periscope video of a Whimbrel on the shore eating at Crystal Pier.
These birds eat mollusks in the sand, and you might imagine that low tide is like showing up to the buffet and the plates already full, where high tide water may cover the foraging area entirely making it difficult for the birds to eat.
When we fly drones during low tide we may seriously impact foraging efforts made by the individuals in the reproductive population. What does this mean?
If you only had two times to eat per day that offered a high abundance of food that was easily accessible, you most likely would not want a predator or a drone flying above your head disturbing your meal.
These birds need coastlines to find food, and being on the ground are vulnerable to many different human activities that also share the coastline.
When we fly drones over these birds, they may see this as a predator or the noise disturbance may cause them to stop foraging. When they stop foraging in these two opportune time periods in a day that can mean energetic loss.
When we don't get enough food we get tired and sick. Same for birds.
To reduce disturbance you can use these 6 simple tips to protect the wildlife in your flight plan.
Here are 6 general tips you can use to reduce bird disturbance.
1. Plan ahead by researching the birds that might be in the same area as your flight plan
2. Research bird behavior and seasonality
3. Reduce impacts by flying over head
4. Never fly above the birds that are on the ground
5. If a bird becomes interested in your drone, fly at a higher altitude and slowly move your drone out of the area (return to home).
6. Take the Alimosphere Pledge to reduce wildlife disturbance.
Take the pledge to reduce drone impacts to wildlife. Pledge Here.
It’s simple to travel with your drone, but..
How can you contribute to global sustainability while on travel with your drone?
by Alicia Amerson
Drones are easy to take with you on travel. In fact most drone pilots take their Unmanned Aerial Vehicle with them on personal and business travel. (see reference below on flying with your drone.)
Sustainable travel is a topic that many of us are becoming more familiar with as travel popularity increases. With our ability to travel anywhere around the world in a relatively short amount of time we are significantly impacting local resources and contributing to massive debris issues in communities that lack well-designed waste disposal infrastructure.
My tourism research and continued curiosity about sustainable tourism drove me to dive into the United Nations 17 sustainable development goals to transform our world. This idea of integrating drones to benefit humanity and to respect wildlife is of great importance for the world. Why don't we start take the transformation to another level by combining drones into the 17 UN sustainable development goals. We use drones in various industries and drones provide unsurmountable benefits when used for good such as providing aid, information, and new perspectives to communities.
In particular, the UN sustainable development goal that caught my interest today is:
Goal 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.
Sustainable consumption and production aims at “doing more and better with less,” increasing net welfare gains from economic activities by reducing resource use, degradation and pollution along the whole lifecycle, while increasing quality of life.
As tourists we need to remember the privilege of exploration comes at a cost and our transportation, use of water and food, local accommodations, mosquito protection, increased security, and cultural interactions will never be completely sustainable. Every industry has impacts to the environment, so does tourism. Buying the word “sustainable or eco-friendly” may not indeed be either of those. For example, many of the products at a hotel may “eco-friendly” written on them but then is tossed in a local watershed after your visit.
Let’s take a flashback to the period of time before you arrived at the airport, how much effort did you put into your travel plans at this point in time?
What was it about the location that captured your creativity or interest in bringing your drone?
Did you consider eco-friendly or sustainable options in your travel plans or accomodations?
Sustainable consumption and production is about promoting resource and energy efficiency, sustainable infrastructure, and providing access to basic services, green and decent jobs and a better quality of life for all.
Our responsibility as Remote PICs is to manage the control station, communicate with supporting crew, mitigate risks, and prepare for emergencies. The skills necessary to take on this leadership role are applicable to many other areas in life - including using drones to benefit humanity when we travel.
As a Remote PIC when you select one or a few of the ideas below your travel activities will be transformed and you will make a difference to an individual or a community. This tip page is a Pick-Your-Own-Adventure story. How will you use your drone to contribute to UN Sustainability Goal #12:
Most important tip:
Reflect on your personal environmental impacts while on travel, ask yourself, “Am I flying my drone respectfully and in a way that benefits humanity and respects wildlife?” If so, then keep up the good work!
We’d love to know other tips to make the sustainable flight mission more robust. Share your ideas, tips,and stories with us.
FLYING WITH YOUR DRONE:
EVALUATING THE SUSTAINABILITY OF THE GRAY-WHALE-WATCHING INDUSTRY ALONG THE PACIFIC COAST OF NORTH AMERICARead Now
EVALUATING THE SUSTAINABILITY OF THE GRAY-WHALE-WATCHING INDUSTRY ALONG THE PACIFIC COAST OF NORTH AMERICA
ALICIA AMERSON & CHRIS PARSONS
Alicia Amerson complete this study in 2015 and earned her Master's degree from the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. She continues to seek ways to reduce anthropogenic impacts to wildlife by networking with researchers, educators, policy makers, technology specialists, and artists.
Manuscript DOI: 10.1080/09669582.2018.1449848
Journal: RSUS: Journal of Sustainable Tourism
From bacteria, the smallest living species, to whales the largest marine mammals
One marine biologist uses drones to connect these disparate species by focusing on the land and the sea.
by Alicia Amerson
Vanessa's drone pilot and engineer, Alastair Smith, from Heliguy Pty Ltd flies a drone over the whales waiting for a specific whale to come up to breath, better known as a blow. He then flies the drone into the large blow to collect the snot in a remotely operated flip lid petri dish located on the top of the drone.
Note: Modestly, Vanessa admitted that although it's fun to fly drones she did not have the particular skills for collecting whale snot. It takes a lot of flight practice to become accurate at collecting whale snot.
Last year at the Society for Marine Mammalogy Conference hosted in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada I met Pirotta, we shared an instant connection because we love drones, whales, and science communication. Through her research she is focused on sharing messages to promote marine mammal conservation by linking human's connection from land-based pollutant sources to the ocean.
Vanessa’s research is novel because she is first researcher to connect large whale migrations to local watersheds. Humpback whales in the Southern Ocean migrate from the foraging grounds in Antarctica, north to Australia during the winter. As the whales migrate past large cities along the Australian coast, Pirotta was curious if the bacteria found in watersheds next to large cities are the same bacteria found in whale snot.
Vanessa is a PhD candidate in the Marine Predator Research Group at Macquarie University in New South Wales, Australia.
In this interview she shares her experience in the field.
Drones have transformed the way many scientists undertake research. This is due to a number of factors such as drone accessibility, low cost, and safety compared with manned aircraft such as helicopters. For whale research, drones have made collecting biological health information from free swimming whales a much safer option. This eliminates the need for close boat approaches using a pole and collection device. For my research, we were able to fly our drone out to whales located over 200 metres or more away. We found whales did not respond to our drone when sampled. They either knew the drone was there and didn’t respond or didn’t even know it was there at all.
What is your favourite moment using drones in the field?
The moment we caught out first sample of whale snot! I was so happy. There was a lot of cheering (and a few tears of happiness from me). This was the moment when we realised that our method works.
- Working on the water and trying to collect samples from swimming humpback whales was a challenge.
- Many off-the-shelf drones don’t like to launch and land on moving boats.
- In addition, working around salt water means you need to keep all equipment clean.
- Battery power was a limitation sometimes when sampling.
These challenges will likely improve as drone technology advances.
What tips do you have for other researchers who want to integrate drones for data collection?
Make sure you do your research first. Have a wide look at the current literature and see what has been done already. Think hard about how drones might be able to improve your research or do you just want to use drone because they are cool?
Previous literature will also help identify potential behavioural impacts on animals, challenges faced and overcome by other scientists in the field and also make future recommendations. This information is super important and all part of doing proper science. Also, make sure you have animal ethics and research permits if working on animals.
What do you think is the future for drones in the marine mammal research field?
I think research like ours is just the start of what could potentially be done. I have already seen such a massive transformation since I started my PhD a few years back. Drones hold a lot of potential for making marine mammal research in the field almost completely non-invasive. It is up to us as scientists and drone enthusiasts to ask good research questions that will actually make a difference when we study marine wildlife.
Pirotta V, Smith A, Ostrowski M, Russell D, Jonsen ID, Grech A and Harcourt R (2017) An Economical Custom-Built Drone for Assessing Whale Health. Front. Mar. Sci. 4:425. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2017.00425
Follow Vanessa’s drone research and marine mammal conservation projects on
We host social innovators focused on generating positive change.
Creating the cultural standard for using drones that promotes reducing wildlife disturbance and exploring our wildspaces, collectively we protect our environment and learn more about our amazing world.
You're invited. If you would like to share your drones for conservation story please send us a note.
Seabirds use the land and water to reproduce, nest, forage and rest. Seabirds species are all unique and have adapted to fill specific habitat niches so whether you hike, boat, kayak, or fly a drone you may impact a seabird.
Find out more in our video blog!
Drone Drone Fly Away, Respect The nap Everyday!
by Gena Bentall and Alicia Amerson
A female sea otter rests in a kelp bed with her pup on her belly as another sea otter nearby surfaces from the depths with a crab dinner. To the general public this offers an alluring window into an offshore world.
Aerial views of sea otters captured by drones give scientists and recreational drone pilots a new and intriguing perspective. Until just a few years ago, these kinds of perspectives on marine mammals were limited to research scientists in planes.
Now, with personal drones widely available to the public and becoming increasingly affordable, bird's-eye-views of nature are more readily at hand. In our excitement and enthusiasm at being freed from the bonds of gravity to view wildlife from new heights, we may have forgotten to consider whether our presence in the air has a negative impact on the creatures below.
Less than a century ago a very small population of around one hundred sea otters lived off the coast of Big Sur—remnants of a maritime fur trade that nearly wiped them out. With extensive support from government, university, and non-governmental organizations the sea otters of California are slowly recovering.
As they re-colonize places from which they were once extirpated, sea otters’ favorite habitats increasingly overlap with locations popular for coastal recreation, creating a perfect recipe for human-wildlife conflict.
In November 2017, at the 3rd Annual Central California Coastal Wildlife Disturbance Symposium, Sea Otter Savvy program coordinator Gena Bentall met up with AliMoSphere leader, Alicia Amerson.
Sea Otter Savvy is an outreach and research program working to protect sea otters from human-caused disturbance on the densely populated California coast.
AliMoSphere is a woman-owned small business working to reduce wildlife disturbance from drones, educate proper drone use through best practices, and get drones into more conservation research projects to reduce biologist mortality in small manned plane survey.
Our common interest is sharing a message to protect sea otters on land and in the water from drone disturbance. An initiative that we hope spreads to the protection and stewardship of drones for all marine wildlife using the California coast.
Some tips about sea otters and drones that we are passing along to you:
- If you are considering using drones to explore coastal wilderness, please fly responsibly and consider your effect on marine animals.
- If you fly close enough that wildlife of any kind takes notice of you, it is time to back away (by slowly gaining altitude and moving away). From the sea otter's point-of-view, once he looks at your drone, you’ve already disturbed him.
- Drones flying low over resting sea otters can cause an entire group (or raft) to dive to dive and flee. Such disturbances, known as “full flushes”, increase stress, require extensive recovery time to resettle and groom fur, and can disrupt behavior of mothers and their pups.
- Consider that sea otters in the populated areas of the central California coast may be repeatedly exposed to human-caused disturbance each day.
- Sea otters can suffer negative effects from repeated human disturbance.
- Your single fly over, seemingly just a momentary event to you, can be one more link in a chain of disturbances that accumulate to a heavy energetic burden to a nutritionally stressed sea otter.
Sea Otter Lifestyle Quick Tips:
Those sea otters who live in areas of highest density are often struggling to meet their daily minimum caloric requirement, and diving and swimming away from human activities causes them to use energy they can’t afford to waste.
Moms with pups are expending extra energy and should be given extra space and consideration. Respect the moms!
For those unfamiliar with marine mammal behavior, some homework will help you recognize what is normal, and what is an animal's response to disturbance. Plus you have two amazing resources at your fingertips - by connecting with Sea Otter Savvy and AliMoSphere you get information about sea otters and reducing drone disturbance.
Stress - The invisible impact. Signs of stress can be difficult to observe in wild animals.They are unable to tell us with words how they are feeling. Scientists studying black bears originally thought the drones did not disturb the bears, who seemed to calmly sit and observe when the drones were near. Then, reviewing data from heart rate monitors on the bears, they discovered that a bear’s heart rate rose 400% (Ditmer, et al) when the drone was near.
Imagine your heart rate raising 400% and not knowing how to respond! How long would it take for you to calm down? These bears appeared calm but they reacted to drones in ways we can’t easily see. Sea otter moms with young pups may be reluctant to swim of dive away from an encroaching drone or kayak, but may be suffering stress nevertheless.—we truly have no idea how drones impact wildlife.
- Study up on sea otter disturbance by visiting our “Understanding Disturbance” page.
- Join the AliMoSphere Flight Blog to get more quick tips on reducing your flight disturbance. Or sign-up for a flight consultation today.
- Put yourself in the sea otter’s place---resting warm and wrapped snugly in kelp, awakened by a mysterious creature buzzing low over your bedroom.
- Be a good steward: respect wildlife, respect your fellow earthlings, respect the nap.
Ditmer, M.A. et al. Bears Show a Physiological but Limited Behavioral Response to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Current Biology , Volume 25 , Issue 17 , 2278 - 2283
Unmanned Aircraft Systems: Responsible Use to Help Protect Marine Mammals
Mapping the Pier
Today I started out with a simple mission: to map Crystal Pier and participate in the #12daysofmaps on twitter. I downloaded DroneDeploy on my iPad. From there I created a flight plan to survey the pier in the DroneDeploy App for iOS. Then I linked to AirMap.io so that I would have flight information at my fingertips. After checking the status of my equipment at home I packed up and headed to Garnet Avenue in Pacific Beach.
Social innovation drives the quest for our mission at Alimosphere. We are here to establish a culture around the use of drones in around the world by preserving our wildlife and wildlands through research, education, and outreach. With a key message to reduce human-wildlife disturbance while focusing on using the technology for many new applications we know that mapping is one way we can make this happen.
On a side note regarding human-wildlife disturbance and mention the opportunities that are provided to us for free when we view wildlife from a pier. A pier has many advantages for reducing wildlife disturbances - one happens to be land-based whale-watching. Piers provide an amazing advantage for viewing birds, whales, dolphins, fishes (even sharks on occasion) without contributing to carbon emissions or creating noise pollution in the water. Go stand on a pier and look out to the horizon or under your feet. During the day or at night you can see a completely new species swimming around the pier
The drone rotors fired up and went straight up to the designated altitude of 150 feet. The approximate time for the flight over the 5.51 acres was 4:32 minutes. The drone flew to the start point and announced it was taking photographs. It completed the five passes for this particular survey and returned home. The Santa Ana winds are starting to come blow, so the survey took a bit longer returning at 5:45 mintues. Overall the transitions were smooth and the imagery is perfect.
The goal of this flight was to capture the christmas tree at the end of the pier. I was able to accomplish this simple task while using my drone autonomously. The application beyond for fun also shows that we can look at pier infrastrastructure before and after storm events to ensure integrity.
I suggest when doing infrastructure surveys on piers, it would be best to fly during low tide as to get the best images of the structure and reduce the amount of water variation.
In This Episode
- Introduction. Alicia Amerson is the founder of AliMoSphere, a start-up company dedicated to protecting our ocean heritage. Alicia wants to develop best practices for pilots who may fly drones in conservation areas or near marine mammals. As a child, Alicia was interested in working in marine biology and her interests led her to several ocean research studies, whale research and eventually a degree in marine biology. Those experiences eventually led her to a investigating how drones could be integrated into an eco-tourism and science/policy career.
- Avoidance Behavior. There are indications that in certain circumstances, drones can contribute to avoidance behavior of marine mammals. When marine mammals react negatively to drones (or other disturbances), they can become separated from their group or pups. They can wander off to unsafe places. Birds can be flushed out of their nests, potentially dropping their unhatched eggs. Avoidance behavior is well documented in the marine biology fields, but most drone operators are not aware of the implications.
- What Drone Operators Should Keep In Mind. If you happen to see marine mammals, Alicia advises not to fly over them and make sure you stay away from bird populations. You may run across stranded sea lion pup, and the drone could scare away its mother, causing a permanent separation. Be careful not to make any sudden moves with your drone.
- The Idea. Alicia first saw a drone while participating in a whale watching study. She had wanted to use drones in her own research, but was unsure how best to safely integrate it into the practice. There was also a general understanding within the science community that drones were not regarded as a sound research tool. There were concerns that drones would cause avoidance behavior or disturbance to mammals. But after participating in a whale watching study in Australia, where drones were used, she learned firs-hand, how drones could be safely used and provide value to researchers.
- Best Practices Guidelines. AliMoSphere is working on best practices guidelines for drone operators who fly over conservation areas or encounter marine mammals while flying. Working with NOAA, Oceana, National Marine Sanctuary, research universities, whale watching companies, AliMoSphere has compiled draft guidelines. In November 2017, AliMoSphere will host three seminars with key stakeholders to begin a dialogue on the guidelines, which ultimately will lead to a consensus on the right best practices to include. The hope is to have a draft for public review by the end of 2017.
- Long Term Benefits. Alicia discusses some of the long-term benefits of using drones in the field of marine science, which include reducing or eliminating whale entanglements. There were more than 100 whales reported last year entangled, of which 71 of them were confirmed. It is extremely difficult to disentangle whales. Drones provide a way to see how the nets are tangled and the best place for crews to make a cut and free the mammals. Additionally drones can help researchers better understand individual and overall populations of marine mammals, as well as the overall health of ecosystems within our ports and various coastlines
- AliMoSphere The Start-Up. Alicia talks about the idea behind AliMoSphere. She started working to develop a stakeholder group to develop the best practices, and through researching and working with various individuals and organizations, she saw an opportunity for women to get involved in the effort. There was also an opportunity to promote workforce development. The company is self-funded and looking for funding partners to help move things forward.
- Partnerships. AliMoSphere has developed a partnership with Oceana and DART Drones to develop conservation class for drone pilots. The class will provide a pathway for those interested in becoming more involved in conservation efforts. AliMoSphere is also working with Drone Logbooks to develop conservation logbooks that will include best practices and project planning for flying in coastal or ocean habitats.
- Society of Marine Mammology. In November, Alicia presented at the Society for Marine Mammalogy on whale entanglement policy objectives and the status of efforts to produce best practices for using drones.
- Reducing Risks. The number one cause of mortality to biologists is conducting aircraft surveys, so there is an opportunity to do surveys with unmanned aerial aircrafts. It’s really important to protect all of these amazing people that are working in this industry. Drones also offer the opportunity for researchers to conduct studies that previously would have been too expensive or dangerous.
- Lessons Learned. Alicia really appreciates the interest and support her company has generated by people interested in conservation and marine biology. She advises others to go with their dreams, do the best they can and know that failure is part of the process of building a business. Listen to what people are saying and strive to fill the gaps, because ultimately, a business should fill a gap, not create something that’s not needed. She observes that when you’re on the right path all the doors will open for you.
- Closing. Alicia believes that it takes a lot people from all backgrounds to have a positive and lasting impact on marine conservation. Drone pilots are great stewards of the technology, and she challenges them to become a better steward for the environment and consider the environment they are flying to reduce any impact to the animals or habitat that they live.
- AliMoSphere (www.alimosphere.com)
Preventing Large Whale Entanglement – A Scientific Perspective Collaborates with Policy Support
UAS provides real time data of entanglement and high quality images of whale body condition. Used for spatial mapping of whale habitats and prey distribution, as well as, monitoring human activity around whales- it can be used as tool for long-term monitoring to reduce risks of entanglement.
Integrating UAS technology, licensed UAS pilots, and UAS best practices would increase success of protecting whales from entanglement.
California Whale Rescue
UC Davis Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center
American Cetacean Society - San Francisco Bay Chapter