ESR prepress abstract  -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/esr00877

The potential of unmanned aerial systems for sea turtle research and conservation: a review and future directions

Alan F. Rees, Larisa Avens, Katia Ballorain, Elizabeth Bevan, Annette C. Broderick, Raymond R. Carthy, Marjolijn J. A. Christianen, Gwénaël Duclos, Michael R. Heithaus, David W. Johnston, Jeffrey C. Mangel, Frank Paladino, Kellie Pendoley, Richard D. Reina, Nathan J. Robinson, Robert Ryan, Seth T. Sykora-Bodie, Dominic Tilley, Miguel R. Varela, Elizabeth R. Whitman, Paul A. Whittock, Thane Wibbels, Brendan J. Godley*

*Email: b.j.godley@exeter.ac.uk

ABSTRACT: The use of satellite systems and manned aircraft surveys for remote data collection has been shown to be transformative for sea turtle conservation and research by enabling the collection of data on turtles and their habitats over larger areas than can be achieved by surveys on foot or by boat. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones are increasingly being adopted to gather data, at previously unprecedented spatial and temporal resolutions in diverse geographic locations. This easily accessible, low-cost tool is improving existing research methods and enabling novel approaches in marine turtle ecology and conservation. Here we review the diverse ways in which incorporating inexpensive UAVs may reduce costs and field time while improving safety and data quality and quantity over existing methods for studies on turtle nesting, at-sea distribution and behaviour surveys, as well as expand into new avenues such as surveillance against illegal take. Furthermore, we highlight the impact that high-quality aerial imagery captured by UAVs can have for public outreach and engagement. This technology does not come without challenges. We discuss the potential constraints of these systems within the ethical and legal frameworks which researchers must operate and the difficulties that can result with regard to storage and analysis of large amounts of imagery. We then suggest areas where technological development could further expand the utility of UAVs as data gathering tools; for example, functioning as downloading nodes for data collected by sensors placed on turtles. Development of methods for the use of UAVs in sea turtle research will serve as case studies for use with other marine and terrestrial taxa.