Behaviour Reactions of Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) to Multirotor Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)
Fettermann, T; Fiori, L; Bader, M; Doshi, A; Breen, D; Stockin, KA; Bollard, B
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Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) represent a novel and cost effective research tool to investigate cetacean behaviour, as conventional aircraft are expensive, limited in the altitude they can fly at and potentially disturb sensitive wildlife. In addition, the aerial observation from the UAVs allows assessment of cetacean behaviour from an advantageous perspective and can collect high spatial and temporal resolution data, providing the opportunity to gather accurate data about group size, age class and subsurface behaviour. However, concerns have been raised about the potential risks of disturbance to animals caused by the UAV’s visual and acoustic stimuli. Boat-based surveys were conducted to assess the short-term behavioural responses of resting bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) to a lightweight Vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) UAV flown at 10, 25, and 40 m altitude. Changes in group swim direction and frequencies of surface and aerial behavioural events were recorded from an anchored research vessel before (control) and during the aerial survey. The number of reorientation and tail slap events increased significantly between controls and flights when the UAV was flown at 10 m over the animals. In contrast, no significant differences were detected when the aircraft was flown at 25 and 40 m altitude. However, a precautionary approach is recommended for research applications requiring lower flight altitudes, with further research recommended to assess how different cetacean species and age class may respond to the UAV presence.