Many drone pilots and enthusiasts love to use their unmanned aerial vehicles to film and photograph landscapes, buildings and, often, wild animals. In certain instances, drones can be an ideal way to observe some of Earth's most spectacular creatures. But, UAVs can sometimes be a major disturbance to certain species. Before using a drone around wild animals, it can be hugely beneficial to first know if doing so is legal and how the animal might react.
What does the law say about drones near animals?
Before using any drones around animals in the wild, it's key to first understand what the law has to say about the matter. However, as with just about everything else related to UAVs, the rules and regulations can vary wildly from one location to another.
"Canadian law prohibits drones from being within 150 meters of wildlife."
This is especially true in North America. While Canadian law prohibits drones from being within 150 meters of wild animals, the Federal Aviation Administration enforces no such all-encompassing law in the United States.
But, there are various local ordinances and laws in place on the subject. For example, the National Park Service has banned all drones from being flown on lands it supervises in part due to concerns that they disturb wildlife. In Michigan, the law says that drones cannot be used to disrupt animals or fish in any way. Plus, many places strictly prohibit hunting with UAVs.
Prior to flying a drone close to animals, it can be helpful to first consult with local authorities on the matter. That way, you can be sure that you are not accidentally running afoul of the law when flying your UAV.
Do animals like or dislike drones?
As far as what animals think about drones, while it may still be too early to come to a definite conclusion, right now it looks as though that the vast majority of animals do not like UAVs at all. In particular, YouTube is filled with videos of different animals attacking drones or being bothered by them in some fashion.
In addition, some scientific studies have found that drones often scare birds and that they can significantly raise a bear's heart rate. UAVs can also frighten elephants as the sounds made by many models can be confused with the buzzing of bees.
"These bears are used to human sounds and sights like farm equipment and roadways, and I had no idea how they were going to respond," said Mark Ditmer, a biologist at the University of Minnesota who led a study on bears and drones, according to The New York Times. "But some of the heart rate readings were rather shocking. I don't know if we have ever measured such a dramatic change other than when an animal has been shot by a hunter."
Can drones help animals?
While many animals react negatively to the presence of UAVs, they nevertheless can be enormously useful for research purposes. With a drone, scientists and researchers can observe wild animals in their native habitat over great distances without having to get too close to them in person.
For example, drones have been used to observe and protect animals ranging from penguins and cranes to dugongs and seals. In one instance, researchers were able to use UAVs to collect whale mucus from afar, which could then be studied to see just how healthy the whales were at the time. Drones have also proven instrumental in anti-poaching efforts, according to the Times.
"We clearly see a potential for research, but only if you assess the risk to wildlife first," David Grémillet, an ecologist at the National Center for Scientific Research in France, told the Times.
What's the final verdict on animals and drones?
At the end of the day, should drone pilots steer clear of wildlife, or is it OK to fly a UAV near a wild animal under certain circumstances? The answer, in this case, is it depends.
First, before taking flight in an area with lots of wildlife, be sure to consult with local authorities, to make sure you know what the law says about the matter. Then, be sure to stay a safe distance away from animals, and to respect their space. Drones can help gather film and photographs of wildlife that would never be possible to get from more conventional means, but this must be done with animal welfare in mind.