Drone photography is the capture of still images by a remotely-operated or autonomous unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), also known as an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) or, more commonly, as a drone. Drone photography allows images to be captured that might not be otherwise possible for human photographers.
Before affordable consumer drones were introduced into the consumer market, photographers and videographers had to rely on light aircraft such as helicopters, gyroplanes, paramotorings and microlights.
The first recorded use of a camera drone was back in `1896 by Alfred Nobel, famous for the invention of dynamite, Nobel launched a rocket with a camera on it. Nobel’s experiment marks the first time cameras were placed on an unmanned system. From 1896 to 2004 the vast majority of drones in operation were used for military purposes.
Come 2006 Da-Jiang Innovations (DJI) entered the market selling gimbals, flight controllers, propulsion systems and robotics for drone and camera manufactures. DJI finally released its flagship consumer drone the DJI Phantom 1 in 2013. The consumer drone market was officially born and Da-Jiang Innovations took the lead too.
The majority of today’s aerial photographers prefer to use consumer drones rather than light aircraft because its cheaper, safer, and more convenient. In addition, camera drones can be packed away in a small bag and taken just about anywhere.
Photographers enjoy todays era of camera drones because they give photos a unique and interesting perspective. Furthermore, they help you access hard-to-reach areas, they’re great for business, they take amazing shots, and they inspire creativity and innovation.
Asia is expected to continue being the biggest consumer of drones. It’s predicted that by 2025, $17 billion of the industry’s revenue will come from the continent. China and Japan are currently the biggest markets for drones and will most likely drive the continent’s contribution to the industry’s growth.
North America is forecasted to be the second-most popular drone region in the world by 2025, with nearly $12 billion worth of revenue coming from the drone industry alone. This will come as no surprise, as major technological and defence companies have invested heavily in drone technology, to the point where federal regulations on drones were even relaxed in 2020.
Europe will be the third-biggest region for drones in 2025, with $9.86 billion worth of revenue coming from the industry. Mirroring North America’s sentiments, the European Union has also acknowledged that drones will be a key part of development within businesses and society. As a result, the opportunity for the wider integration of drones into society has been aided through the establishment of particular EU commissions to see how to adopt drones safely within the continent.
Africa, South America and Oceania are forecasted to share just $3.28 billion of the global drone market by 2025, as the infrastructure in place in these locations is not as developed as in other parts of the world. However, with these continents having some of the fastest-growing economies worldwide, its anticipated that these locations will adopt drone technology faster than places such as Europe. (Charlie Barton July 2021)
“LACK OF REGULATION AND ETHICS”
There’s absolutely no denying that in recent years camera drones have become quite popular with photographers and videographers. However, there remains a lack of drone regulation and ethics concerning wildlife which is worrying several conservation and animal welfare charities. Furthermore, while drone sales increase so too are reports regarding wildlife harassment.
On the 27th August 2015, CBC news reported that a drone operator was fined more than $1000 for allegedly flying his drone too close to an orca pod:
“An American drone operator and photographer have been slapped with hefty fines for allegedly getting too close to a pod of orcas in Washington state.
The footage captured in the Haro Strait, just east of Vancouver Island, is incredible but one of the operators is facing a fine of more than $1,000.
U.S. authorities say the pair’s drones were within nine metres of the whales while the regulation requires all vessels should be at least approximately 183 metres back.”Source: CBC News
Andrew Trites, the director of UBC’s marine mammal research unit, says whales detect sounds in the water but not what is overhead.
“So it’s not clear if they can hear that sort of sound,” he said. “They do perceive boat engines in the water but for the most part, drones are producing mostly low pitch sounds.
On the 20th February 2018, SUAS News reported that a tourist was given a life ban for flying his drone in the Kruger National Park (KNP):
“The flying of drones is illegal in national parks, as they are legislated protected areas with restricted airspace and therefore a no-fly zone for all unauthorised aircraft systems.
Currently, the applicable legislation is the South African National Environmental Management Act’s (NEMA) Protected Areas Act, which prohibits the flying of any machine at less than 2000 metres above any national park.
Flying such aircraft, getting out of vehicles on undesignated areas, interfering in sightings, and disturbing and stalking animals is illegal within the park and will bear consequences.
We would like to inform wrongdoers and other drone users that, should they be found flying them in the park at any time, they will be arrested on the spot and their equipment will be seized,” said Phaahla.”Source: SUAS News
On the 31st August 2018, the BBC reported that wildlife experts are becoming “increasingly concerned” at the number of cases of protected wildlife being disturbed by drones:
“They say some drones are being flown dangerously close to breeding birds and animals at sites in Scotland. Seals have reportedly been chased into the sea at protected haul-out sites, which risks their pups being crushed.
Concerns are also being raised about nesting birds becoming panicked and plummeting off cliffs into the sea.
Andy Turner, wildlife crime officer with Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), said: “There have been several incidents involving drones disturbing seals at designated haul-out sites. Likewise, there have been anecdotal reports of drones being used to film seabird colonies and raptors.
“While the footage from drones in these circumstances can be very spectacular, the operator must be mindful of the effect on wildlife.
“Birds of prey in particular can see drones as a threat and act aggressively towards them, causing both injury to themselves and damage to the drone.
“We would encourage anyone wishing to film wildlife with a drone to contact SNH for advice and, if necessary, apply for a licence.”
Birds like the golden eagle and mammals like dolphins and whales are protected from disturbance all year round, while others are given additional protection during the breeding season.
RSPB Scotland said birds like guillemots and razorbills in particular could be panicked by drones close to cliffs and that the implications could be “almost catastrophic”.
The charity uses drones itself for habitat and vegetation surveys and said they can be used positively.
Head of Investigations Ian Thomson said: “Watch the animals. You will get a sign if you are causing them any stress, you’ll see from their behaviour.
“You might see birds take flight or suddenly lift their heads and run off or walk off.”
If the birds start altering their behaviour, that shows that you are disturbing them and then it is time to move a drone away.”Source: BBC News
On the 5th June 2021, the Guardian reported that protected elegant terns had abandoned 3000 eggs after drones were illegally flown over the Bolsa Chica ecological reserve sparking global outrage:
“About 3,000 elegant tern eggs were abandoned at a southern California nesting island after a drone crashed and scared off the birds, a newspaper reported Friday.
Two drones were flown illegally over the Bolsa Chica ecological reserve in Huntington Beach in May and one of them went down in the wetlands, the Orange County Register said.
Fearing an attack from a predator, several thousand terns abandoned their ground nests, according to the state department of fish and wildlife.
Now, during the month when the birds would be overseeing their eggs as they begin to hatch, the sand is littered with egg shells.
It’s one of the largest-scale abandonments of eggs ever at the coastal site about 100 miles (160 km) north of San Diego, according to the reserve manager, Melissa Loebl.
With the pandemic driving more and more people to outdoor spaces, last year saw about 100,000 visitors to the Bolsa Chica reserve – up from about 60,000 the previous year, Loebl said.
That’s contributed not only to increased drone activity, but also to more dogs and bicycles on the trails – all of which are prohibited.”Source: The Guardian
A 2015 Elsevier study on brown bears showed how the sheer presence of a flying drone, and its close proximity can initiate extreme panic in brown bears.
Researchers placed a heart rate monitor on a brown bear and then flew a drone nearby. The bear did not exhibit typical avoidance or stress responses such as swatting or running away.
In fact the bear simply watched the drone. To the casual observer it may have seemed that the bear was unaffected by the drone’s presence. However, when the researchers analysed the data from the heart monitor, it showed that the bear’s heart rate had increased by 400% during the encounter.
To minimise the negative impacts drones have onto wildlife, some studies have recommended codes of practice until more research can be conducted to enable more comprehensive standards to be developed.
Key aspects contained in the suggested codes are summarised below:
- Obey civil aviation rules
- Seek approval from institutional ethics committees before using drones for research purposes near animals
- Anyone using drones should exercise caution to minimise disturbance of wildlife, particularly where endangered species or ecologically sensitive habitats are involved – ideally have experienced pilots fly near wildlife to minimise risk and flight time required
- Utilise drones with low noise production and size
- Launch and land drones at least 100m from animals and fly at a reasonable altitude and distance from animals at all times
- Avoid moving directly toward the animal as it may mimic a predator’s movements – lawn mower patterns have been found to have minimal disturbance effects
- Where ever possible, expert advice should be obtained if there is no research available for a given species’ response to drones and thus what is a reasonable distance to fly from the animal to minimise potential disturbance
- Monitor animal responses to the drone and cease flying if they become excessively disturbed
- When conducting studies around animals with drones, the exact flight practices such as altitude and distance from animals and the responses of the animals should be reported as part of the study to assist future research and regulations
Perception of drones by wildlife is related to their habitat, species type, and type of drones and method of its operation. Large, noisy drones may instigate a fight-or-flight response in wildlife, especially if the drone approaches wildlife directly and at high speeds.
Studies have shown that birds are most impacted by drone use, and herd species tend to respond more dramatically to approaching drones (Mulero-Pazmany et al. 2017). However, more research is necessary on how wildlife is affected by drones.
Its our responsibility as ethical and responsible drone users and wildlife caretakers to limit the effects we have on the animals around us. Many locations recognise drone flight around wildlife as harassment and as such, have implemented laws and regulations for the prohibition of drone use in many places.
The more people who abuse the privilege of getting to fly recreational drones, the more limitations everyone will have in using drones.
Setting a good example for ourselves and others can help to limit these regulations by being responsible drone owners and users. However, this is easier said than done.
Drone manufactures need to do more too, for example, educating the drone community about the negative impacts drones have onto wildlife via social media is a start.
In addition, the implementation of a drone photography/videography wildlife code of practice is critically important to help minimise wildlife disturbance, harassment, and death in some species.
Back in November 2018, a distressing video emerged on Viral Hog depicting what appears to be an adult grizzly bear trying to rescue its cub from what we now know was a drone flown by Dr Dmitry Kedrov in the Magadan Region, Russia.
Biologists who watched the video stated they saw the work of an irresponsible drone operator who, in trying to film and photograph the bears, drove them into a dangerous situation that almost cost the cub its life. “I found it really hard to watch,” says Sophie Gilbert, an ecologist at the University of Idaho who studies, among other things, how drones affect wildlife.
“It showed a pretty stark lack of understanding from the drone operator of the effects that his actions were having on the bears.”Source: Dr Sophie Gilbert
Dr Clayton Lamb echoed the concerns of Dr Gilbert too:
“The setting of the video is already suspicious. With a cub that small and vulnerable, it’s very unlikely that a mother bear would opt to traverse such a steep and slippery slope.
There’s no reason a female would normally accept that risk, unless they were forced into it.
It doesn’t matter how far away it was, because I can tell from the bears’ behaviour that it was too close.”Source: Dr Clayton Lamb University of Alberta
Throughout the video, Dr Lamb notes, the mother is constantly looking up at the drone and is clearly bothered by its presence. At some point, the footage zooms in, probably because the drone itself was swooping closer.
That, Lamb says, explains why the mother unexpectedly swats at the cub, causing it to fall. She probably read the drone’s approach as a kind of attack and was trying to push her cub away.
She may, as some biologists have suggested, have parsed it as an eagle (and indeed, the shadow of a bird of prey can be seen in the video clip above). But Lamb suspects that her concern was more straightforward: A strange, loud object was closing in.
“Many people think that drones are silent, like a soaring bird or a paper airplane,” he says, but at close range, they can be very loud.”Source: Dr Clayton Lamb
DRONES & WILDFIRES
In recent years, there have been a number of cases of drone crashes that started wildfires, particularly in dry, high wildfire-risk areas such as Arizona or Oregon. So how does a crash lead to setting off a fire?
In many cases, it appears to be battery initiated. If the battery shorts out, or is overheated when the drone lands (whether the battery malfunction causes a crash landing, or the drone is landed intentionally), the overheated battery can cause dry grasses, pine needles or other easily combustible natural materials to ignite. If this occurs in a drought-ridden or generally arid area, it could lead to a widespread wildfire (see image below).
In some cases the cause of overheating and combustion does not appear to originate from the battery, but rather from the ESC’s or motors. An improperly functioning motor could generate enough heat to ignite dry combustible material in the same way, or could even send off sparks.
In most of the reported cases of drones unintentionally initiating wildfires, the drone in question was a racing drone. This is likely the case for a number of reasons.
One reason may be that the motors and batteries of racing drones are more exposed and less enclosed than they typically are in more standard off-the-shelf models. Any issues such as overheating or sparking are more likely to cause problems when less contained.
Also, racing drones generally don’t have legs to land on, and would be in more direct contact with potentially combustible materials upon landing than a drone that has landing gear, so to speak.
The risk of fire from drones is not limited to outdoor settings. LiPo batteries are known for their instability and risk of combustion too.
On the 26th June 2018, Pamplin Media reported that a drone had crashed into dry grass in a national park causing a small wildfire:
“Scappoose Fire District personnel on Tuesday, June 26, responded to a 20-by-10 grass fire caused by a downed drone near Scappoose Industrial Airpark.
Several individuals were flying a drone in Federal Aviation Administration-restricted airspace on Wagner Court, just off of West Lane Road in Scappoose, when it had a malfunction, landed in dry grass and sparked a fire, according to a June 29 press release from the fire district.
The drone operators attempted to stomp out the fire but were unsuccessful. They called 911 at roughly 5:49 p.m.
The drone went down in a vacant field with no nearby structures, the release notes.
Firefighters responded with one engine, one brush truck, three support vehicles and nine personnel. The fire was limited to roughly a quarter-acre of dry grass.
The drone was slightly damaged and its operators, who are not identified in the press release, were issued a verbal warning for using it in restricted airspace.”Source: Pamplin Media
On the 1st September 2020 the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) found the presence of flying drones can trigger fear in water birds, geese, swans, and ducks causing them to flee.
Disturbances caused by drones could affect rare and protected species, causing them to waste energy and reduce time spent in winter feeding grounds experts fear.
BTO scientists flew a commercially available quadcopter drone towards water bird flocks in coastal, freshwater and arable crop farmland habitats.
While one researcher flew the drone at a standard speed and height towards the flock, another watched through a telescope to record any responses to the drone as it approached, including alarm calls, signs of heightened alertness and taking flight.
The experiment revealed larger flocks were more likely to take flight than smaller flocks, and large flocks also took flight at a greater distance from the drone than smaller flocks. Habitat also had a significant impact on the reaction of birds, as well as group size.
Birds at inland lochs, areas with lots of other human activity and noise, were unlikely to respond to the presence of a drone. However, birds at coastal sites were more likely to respond, possibly due to being accustomed to lower noise levels.
Birds in arable farmland were particularly sensitive, the scientists found, likely a result of the need to be on the lookout for predators in the exposed area.
The report complied by the British Trust for Ornithology went onto state:
“The mass proliferation of drones and the increasingly likelihood of commercial and recreational drone use taking place close to wildlife creates a new and potentially significant source of disturbance to wild birds.
Such disturbance, which could affect rare and protected species, causes birds to waste energy and reduces their feeding time.
In extreme cases, birds might stop using an area altogether, and be forced to feed elsewhere, where feeding opportunities may be poorer or the risk of predation higher.
This could be particularly harmful during the cold winter months, when vast numbers of water birds come to Britain from the Arctic to feed up before the breeding season.”Source: Dr David Jarrett, (BTO)
The lead researcher, Dr David Jarrett said:
“While we expected that the drone would cause large flocks to flush, we were surprised that birds hardly seemed to respond to the drone at all at those inland lochs where there was already lots of human activity taking place.
Hopefully this research can be used to help inform guidance and regulations on drone use in proximity to wild birds.”Source: Dr David Jarrett, (BTO)
THE WRONG TOOL FOR WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY
The camera drone is the wrong tool for wildlife photography projects. Of all of challenges of wildlife photography, perhaps the most difficult to master is appropriate distance: We want to get as close as possible to get great shots, while staying far enough away to keep subjects from becoming stressed, behaving unnaturally, or fleeing.
In between those extremes is a grey area of extremely subtle ethical considerations, when an animal is aware of a photographers presence yet not showing any overt signs of being bothered.
This is why serious photographers invest much money and time into extending their “reach” with super telephoto lenses, blinds, and other equipment and techniques to get closer—but not too close.
High-quality camera drones have added a new dimension to this careful calculus over the last decade, dangling the tantalizing promise of smashing this dichotomy and getting photographers closer, with new angles, less disturbance, and at a lower cost. Unfortunately, however, this is a false promise.
The reality is that current drone technology actually puts photos much farther away while introducing new, less predictable risks to birds and other wildlife. You don’t see professional bird photographers using drones for good reason: They are a lose-lose scenario for both photographers and animals.
To take adequately detailed photos of birds and other wildlife for example, you generally need to get closer than drones safely can. While drones are tiny and autonomous, they are also noisy, conspicuous, and unfamiliar to most animals, especially to wild birds.
And for many accessible wild animals living in close proximity to people, drones can be even more frightening than we are. This is especially true for wild birds that respond to drones as they would to threatening predators. This is why drones should never be flown over nesting birds for photography.
While it is now well established (from studies) that drones can easily disturb wildlife, for wildlife management (unlike photography), it is a question of degree. If, for example, checking an Osprey nest with a drone can be less disruptive than throwing a ladder up to the nest, than the calculus of whether it is a worthwhile activity may be different for that of a photographer.
The end result of these studies suggested that the minimum safe distance for drones was 200 feet. The animals became more alert at 150 feet. And below 120 feet, the disturbance was noticeably extreme. However, it must be empathised, that each species of animal behaves differently. As such further detailed studies are required.
The fact that a drone doesn’t get you closer to subjects is made worse because small, consumer drones only carry the tiniest, specialised cameras (usually a sports-action camera like a GoPro). While these cameras are amazing in their own right, they are the opposite of what wildlife photographers want.
Drone photography is a magnificent, stunning, modern art form. It just has little value in wildlife photography with exception of extreme aerial distance shots (like an overhead shot of a flock of birds that is so large the shape of the flock becomes the subject) taken with an ultra-wide angle lens.
Evolving camera technology is one of the most hopeful potential developments for ethical wildlife photography. Imagine a new generation of super telephoto lenses which would allow us to take the same photo we can today at twice the distance.
Or a new ultra-high resolution sensor which would allow us to crop images more tightly with greater quality. Unfortunately, drones, as currently conceived and manufactured, are not the technological step forward that most wildlife photographers need.
Camera drones when used correctly provide stunning images or video footage of landscapes, seascapes and architecture. In addition, several charities use drones to map forests, monitor wildlife at a safe distance, or close distances to minimise human species conflict and poaching attacks.
Furthermore, most consumer and industrial drones are equipped with ultrasonic sensors that emit high frequency sounds that are audible to some animals. However, further studies are required to determine whether ultrasonic sensor noise can interfere or disturb specific sensitive species of animals such as birds, bats, cetaceans and rodents.
Drones are excellent tools for all non-wildlife photography and videography projects, in addition, they’re used regularly to monitor wildlife and cattle and to deter poaching. However, drones are also bad for wildlife when flown recklessly.
Two major studies have revealed that flying drones around animals can result in behaviour changes and increased heart rates, which may indicate stress induced by the sound and visual stimulus of the drone. Mulero-Pazmany M et al (2017), Vas E et al (2015), Hodgson J & Koh L (2016).
Drones can disrupt bird nests when flown too close and often provoke birds and mammals to attack. Recent studies have also shown that drones can scatter LEKS.
Birds that congregate on LEKS (the area where birds gather during the breeding season) for COURTSHIP DISPLAYS can be particularly sensitive to disturbances, and if a drone appears to be a flying predator, the birds may scatter prematurely. This can drastically impact their ability to find suitable mates, and if the lek is not revisited, it may take generations for birds to find and begin using another suitable site with the same success.
Drones can also interrupt feeding. If a drone disturbs a foraging bird, the bird may abandon a good food source and be forced to seek less abundant or nutritious resources. This disruption can have a catastrophic impact on overall bird populations, as malnourished birds do not breed as successfully or raise as many healthy chicks.
It is possible that a drone could inadvertently fly into a flock of birds or otherwise collide with birds, causing severe injuries.
Reckless drone flying has also led to numerous wildfires worldwide. Wildfires can displace, traumatize and kill animals. LiPo batteries are known for their instability and risk of combustion.
Therefore, the drone operator must take sensible precautions to ensure the LiPo is safe, secure and in good working order before flying. Furthermore, the drone operator must keep their drone in line of sight at all times to prevent a wildfire should the drone crash.
Drones are excellent tools for various photography projects. However, they pose a significant threat to wildlife.
J. J. Williamson | The Norfolk Photographer
My name is Jon Williamson; I’m an ethical photographer and writer with fifteen years of experience in the industry. I shoot landscapes, seascapes, riverscapes, fine art, and portraits. I also run workshops, run tours, and offer one-on-one photography feedback.