The editor’s choice is the article by Zabel et al.: “Assessment of the accuracy of counting large ungulate species (red deer Cervus elaphus) with UAV-mounted thermal infrared cameras during night flights”
New technologies have the potential to boost research as they promise to overcome old methodological challenges. In wildlife research, reliable population counts are one of these old challenges. Aerial surveys can provide good results, at least for larger species in open terrain. However, aircraft are expensive. Drones (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, UAVs) may do better: they are safer, cheaper and give access to difficult terrain and to species that are sensitive to approach on foot. Although infrared sensors can see more than human observers, detectability is influenced – to an unknown degree – by factors such as season, vegetation, flight parameters and target species. However, knowing the detection rate, i.e. the percentage of animals present that the UAV can detect, is crucial for estimating density. This is why the work of Zabel et al. will be so valuable to wildlife drone pilots.
In their paper, they made use of a red deer population of known size in an enclosed area to assess whether drones with a thermal infrared sensor can deliver accurate counts. Comparing known and estimated population sizes indicated that drones have the potential to accurately count large ungulates, but that season and flight height need to be considered. The paper will contribute to improving the application of UAVs in wildlife surveys.