Aerial surveys are valuable tools for wildlife research and management. However, problems with safety, cost, statistical integrity, and logistics continue to impede aerial surveys from manned aircraft. The use of small, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) may offer promise for addressing these problems and become a useful tool for many wildlife applications, such as for collecting low-altitude aerial imagery. During 2002 and 2003, we used a 1.5-m wingspan UAV equipped with autonomous control and sophisticated video equipment to test the potential usefulness of such an aircraft for wildlife research applications in Florida, USA. The UAV we used completed >30 missions (missions averaging 13 km linear distance covered) over 2 years before finally crashing due to engine failure. The UAV captured high-quality, progressive-scan video of a number of landscapes and wildlife species (white ibis [Eudocimus albus], other white wading birds, American alligator [Alligator mississippiensis], and Florida manatee [Trichechus manatus]). The UAV system was unable to collect georeferenced imagery and was difficult to deploy in unimproved areas. The performance of the autonomous control system and the quality of the progressive-scan imagery indicated strong promise for future UAVs as useful field tools. For small UAVs to be useful as management or research tools, they should be durable, modular, electric powered, launchable and recoverable in rugged terrain, autonomously controllable, operable with minimal training, and collect georeferenced imagery.
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