Ducks and drones will fly this winter

Ducks Unlimited will team with the Black Duck Joint Venture, Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and Conservation Management Institute at Virginia Tech this winter to get a duck's-eye view on waterfowl numbers on the East Coast.

In 2015, Ducks Unlimited received a grant from Waterfowl Research Foundation to support regional research projects in the Completing the Cycle Initiative area and Atlantic Flyway regions. Of the grant, $15,000 with matching funds from the joint venture and state of Connecticut will allow researchers to study the feasibility of counting ducks using unmanned aerial systems, otherwise known as drones. Scientists now use airplanes to count ducks, but the study will determine if drones can get accurate numbers without disturbing the birds.

"Planes are expensive and often not feasible for counting waterfowl in some populated areas, and have added safety concerns for pilots and observers," said John Coluccy, Director of Conservation Planning for Ducks Unlimited's Great Lakes/Atlantic Region. "With drones, area managers could do weekly surveys in the fall or year-round."

For the test flights, researchers will place a known number of decoys over an area. The drone will fly scheduled routes and photograph the decoys. Separate researchers will count the decoys in the photographs and will compare them with the known number to determine the accuracy of the method and photographs.

Coluccy said the test flights will allow researchers to also observe how ducks behave with drones overhead. Ducks will be observed with quad-rotor helicopter style and fixed-wing airplane style drones.

Using drones may represent the future of observing and counting waterfowl, and may supplement traditional aerial surveys conducted since the 1950s.