Drones: The Future of Oiled Wildlife Reconnaissance and Recovery

Drone photos by Chris Muhl

Saving birds and marine mammals after an oil spill requires quick action and the ability for many teams to work together. The faster an animal is recovered, the more likely it is to survive.

One tricky part of that response effort involves aerial surveying: a team flies a fixed-wing plane over the potentially affected beaches and waterways looking for oil-threatened animals. It’s a crucial part of the process. After all, responders must be able to locate oiled animals before they can capture them and begin the rehabilitation process.

In ten years, I think we’ll look back and they’ll be standard.

But there are drawbacks to these flights that can put both animals and humans at risk. To be able to locate, quantify, and distinguish species, reconnaissance aircraft must fly at low altitudes, which can scare the animals and cause them to scatter, sometimes in the direction of the oil. And there’s also the risk of a crash when flying at low altitudes, which can potentially harm people in the aircraft and on the ground, and cause another disaster along with the original oil spill itself.     

Drones, which have typically been characterized as weapons of war, could alleviate both of those problems, and more.

“In ten years, I think we’ll look back and they’ll be standard,” said Dr. Tim Bean, an Assistant Professor who specializes in spatial and landscape ecology at Humboldt State University. “The Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN) is so prepared for everything that needs to happen in a spill, so this is a good opportunity to just plug in this new technology.”

The OWCN, which is housed within the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center at UC Davis, has funded Dr. Bean’s project, which will be the first to test the use drones in oil spill reconnaissance. The project is in its early phases, but it will continue throughout 2015.

“The addition of drones to our toolbox of oil spill response can really improve how we send wildlife recovery teams into the field,” said Kyra Mills-Parker, Field Operations Coordinator for OWCN. “It has the potential to increase our speed of capture and help us focus our efforts where we’re needed most.”  

Here are five ways in which drones could improve upon manned reconnaissance flights:  


A suitable aircraft and trained observers are not always immediately available for reconnaissance. While “operational overflights” often happen before the Aerial Survey Team has arrived, those flights don’t typically carry biologists with the expertise to identify individual species on the ground.

A drone – or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) as we’ll call them from here forward – could be deployed with greater ease. 


Surveying wildlife from the sky is hard and has the potential to produce inaccurate information. It’s possible for observers to pass by individual birds before identifying them, especially as flock sizes increase. Meanwhile, the observer is expected to transfer that information to a single navigator on the plane, complicating data collection even further. There is also a time lag for this information to go from the experts on the plane, to the Wildlife Branch Director at the Command Post, to the Wildlife Recovery Group Supervisor in charge of sending field teams out.

UAVs can allow for both live flight video and/or geo-referenced imagery to be downloaded and analyzed on the ground. This technology can provide more accurate counts and location of oiled wildlife in the area. Because the UAV team would be placed on the ground rather than in a plane, direct communication and coordination with field operations could become much more fluid.


Adverse weather conditions can delay and prevent reconnaissance flights, particularly on the foggy coast where spills are likely to occur.

UAVs, because they are unmanned, can fly in conditions not suitable for manned aircraft. 


Lethal crashes in the course of aerial wildlife surveys have sadly become an annual occurrence in the United States. Meanwhile, flying at low altitudes can also present problems for oiled birds and pinnipeds. Sometimes known colonies and rookeries are avoided to minimize wildlife disturbance, but important data can be lost as a result. In some unfortunate cases, aerial surveys can even cause uninjured wildlife to disperse toward a spill.

UAVs drastically reduce the risk to pilots in the event of a crash, because there is no pilot on board. They also reduce the risk for wildlife because they are much smaller and quieter, therefore less likely to cause animals to disperse. 


The price of the aircraft and its system, along with cuts to operator time and fuel costs, make UAVs an affordable alternative or supplement to manned aerial surveys. 



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