Tom placed his brand-new Christmas gift on the sandy shore of Boundary Bay Regional Park not far from the local airport, stood back, and then powered up the four propellers with his remote control. The white Phantom DJ-I quickly lifted off, flew high into the sky, and then headed over toward the huge mixed flock of shorebirds browsing on the flats. On the way, Tom guided the quadrotor to hover over a snowy owl resting on a large piece of driftwood and snapped a few pictures. As the machine approached the shorebirds at a height of about 100 feet, the flock exploded into the sky and swirled around and around in one large mass of brown, while the drone took dozens of photos. As a bird-watcher, it was Tom’s intention to examine those photos on his computer at home and identify as many species as possible. But what’s wrong with this picture, you may well ask?
First and foremost, what Tom is doing is highly illegal from two standpoints! According to the new Transport regulations issued in late 2014, he should not be flying his Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) within 5 nautical miles (9.25 kilometers) of any built-up area without possessing a Special Flight Operations Certificate. Second, his deliberate use of the machine to approach and possibly harass those feeding shorebirds, again without a proper permit from the Canadian Wildlife Service could be construed as a contravention of the Migratory Birds Act. And what are the chances that one of the birds could have been struck by the propellers?
Some of the more purist birders might also question the ethical aspect of Tom’s behavior. I have met birders who complain of the unfairness of those who simply photograph birds and then later use resources at home to identify them, let alone using drones to do so. In fact, at this very point in time, the hunting fraternity is currently debating the use of UAVs in their sport, questioning whether such technology flies in the face of “fair chase” rules.
As someone who has used UAVs to study wildlife for the last eight years, I can assure you that these machines can indeed be put to very good use in the world of ornithology and bird conservation. Dominique Chabot, my former PhD student, and I successfully flew a small fixed-wing UAV to count resting snow and Canada geese flocks and then later to count colonially-nesting common terns, and mapped habitat use by both terns and least bitterns. James Junda, my MSc student, effectively used a quadrotor to examine the contents of the nests of ospreys, bald eagles and several hawk species. My partners and I are currently investigating how to use UAVs as antennae in the sky to pick up radio signals from sparrows bearing transmitters, as well applying them to disperse nuisance starlings from vineyards. And that is just the tip of the iceberg!
And what is my bottom line? I do not have a problem with folks using this technology to either watch birds or to study them as long as it is done according to established government regulations.