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Epic Duck Challenge: Drones Outdo Humans For The Count

Drone Shot Duck Challenge


Epic Duck Challenge: Drones Outdo Humans For The Count

Researchers used plastic bird decoys to represent this species in to compare efficiency of humans vs drones when counting wildlife. Photo Credit: Jarrod Hodgson

Epic Duck Challenge: Drones Outdo Humans For The Count


One of the biggest hurdles that even the most experienced wildlife spotters face is accurate head count of the species of study. But now, drones have come to the rescue, as demonstrated by a study of University of Adelaide and the drone has establishes its accuracy in wildlife monitoring.

Using the hashtag #epicduckchallenge, a trial was conducted by placing thousands of rubber ducks on a beach in Adelaide and a head count of their numbers was conducted by a team of wild life enthusiasts and also independently by a drone. The study proved beyond doubt that traditional counting approaches lacked in accuracy as compared with that provided by drones. The study result was later published in the British Ecological Society journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution.

“For a few years now, drones have been used to monitor different animals that can be seen from above, including elephants, seals and nesting birds. But, until now, the accuracy of using drones to count wildlife was unclear,” says the study’s lead author, Jarrod Hodgson from the University’s Environment Institute and School of Biological Sciences. “We needed to test the technology where we knew the correct answer. We couldn’t use wild animals because we could never be sure of the real number of individuals present” he went on to say.

Humans Count Ducks

The scientists were assisted by many volunteers, without whom the #EpicDuckChallenge would not have been possible. Photo Credit: Jarrod Hodgson

Conditions on the chosen day for the trial were ideal. The ground spotters were allowed the use of binoculars or telescopes to count the decoy rubber birds using. Simultaneously, a drone took flight over the beach, clicking pictures of the birds from the sky at different heights. A tally of both the numbers counted by each independent entity was made and the drone approach won hands down. “We found it is more accurate and more precise to have people count birds from the drone imagery than to do it on location,” Mr Hodgson said.

The scientists involved in the process went a step further. Realizing the fact that counting birds in photos takes a long time the researchers came up with a computer algorithm to count the ducks automatically, which yielded results just as good as humans reviewing the imagery. “With so many animals across the world facing extinction, our need for accurate wildlife data has never been greater,” Mr Hodgson said. “Accurate monitoring can detect small changes in animal numbers. That is important because if we had to wait for a big shift in those numbers to notice the decline, it might be too late to conserve a threatened species.”

Duck Challenge Data

Comparing the vantages: drone-derived photographs and the ground counter’s view. Photo Credit: Jarrod Hodgson

“Our results show that monitoring animals with drones produces better data that we can use to proactively manage wildlife.” He declared proudly. The research paper was co-authored by scientists from the Australian Antarctic Division, the University of Tasmania and Monash University.


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Cite this article as: Sarah Whittaker, "Epic Duck Challenge: Drones Outdo Humans For The Count," in, February 14, 2018,

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