Exploring the feasibility of unmanned aerial vehicles and thermal imaging for ungulate surveys in forests - preliminary results

<p>Effective wildlife management and conservation require reliable assessments of animal abundance. However, no ungulate monitoring methods is entirely satisfying in terms of cost-effectiveness and accuracy. A new method combining unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) and thermal infrared (TIR) imaging may have great potential as a tool for ungulate surveys. Drones enable safe operations at low flying altitudes, and at night – a time that often offers the optimal conditions for wildlife monitoring. To assess the feasibility of the proposed method we used fixed-wing drones with TIR cameras to conduct test surveys in Drawieński National Park, Poland. We demonstrated that ungulate thermal signatures are visible both in leafless deciduous and in pine-dominated coniferous forests. Survey timing highly influenced the results – the best quality thermal images were obtained at sunrise, late evening, and at night. Our preliminary results indicated that thermal surveys from drones are a promising method for ungulate enumeration. We demonstrated that with ground resolution of ~10 cm it is possible to visibly distinguish large species (i.e. red deer) and achieve a good level of area coverage. The main challenges of the method are difficulties in species identification due to relatively low resolution of TIR cameras, regulations limiting drone operations to visual line of sight, and high dependence on weather.</p>