Drones Improve Research in Canadian Arctic

by AMNH on

Research posts

There is a portion of Manitoba, Canada, so remote it is only accessible by helicopter. This area is also widely acknowledged as the polar bear capital of the world, and is home to a variety of birds that breed in the Arctic, including snow geese and eiders. This past summer, a research team led by the University of North Dakota and the American Museum of Natural History brought a new tool to bear on their studies of this region: unmanned aerial systems (UAS), or drones.

Polar bear sprawled on gravelly ground.
Polar bears are plentiful in this remote region.
© Susan Felege

As part of the Hudson Bay Project, a collaborative research program that includes partners from the U.S. and Canada, the team conducted nearly 90 test flights from Wapusk National Park to find out if drones could be used to non-invasively study the overabundant geese in the region and their impact on the tundra landscape. The results were compelling, with a single unmanned aircraft generating more than 80,000 detailed images over the course of just two months.

UAV Aerial
A coastal photograph taken from the unmanned aircraft.
© Hudson Bay Project

The researchers’ drone of choice is a 5.5-pound Styrofoam flyer that launches via catapult and takes photos at one-second intervals. The images are then stitched together to form a picture of the ground below. The craft’s belly camera clearly captures snow geese and their goslings, different types of vegetation and damaged areas, and other bird species including sandhill cranes and bald eagles. 

Snow geese huddle in a group in a grassy area next to a body of water.
Snow geese near the drone's landing zone don't pay the aircraft much heed. 
© Chris Felege

The team found that the animals generally ignored the aircraft, even when they were in close proximity to the launch sites. That is important not only to the nature of the work, but also to the park managers and the indigenous people who have a “don't touch and don’t disturb” philosophy, says Robert Rockwell, a research associate in the Museum’s Department of Ornithology and a senior scientist of the Hudson Bay Project.

“Using UAS allows us to respect those wishes and cultural considerations,” he says.