Get Regular Updates!
|Dugongs and drones: ecology from the sky



Murdoch University

Dugongs and drones: ecology from the sky

Dugongs and drones: ecology from the sky

As drone technology takes off, application in marine research is sky high.

Dugongs and drones: ecology from the sky

Remote areas, gorgeous coastlines and dugongs all tend to go hand-in-hand.

Just like aerial surveys, tiny planes and countless hours of manually sorting through images.

Until now, the best way to monitor dugong populations has been to charter a plane, hire a pilot and fly up and down the coast.

Sounds fun, until you lose an engine. Which happens more often than Murdoch University’s Dr Amanda Hodgson would like.

Amanda’s been working for 10 years to replace manned aerial surveys with drone-based surveys instead.

And Drone-based surveys aren’t only safer, they’re cheaper, faster and more detailed as well.

Drones are much more cost-effective than hiring a plane.
. Credit: Gloria Salgado Gispert
View Larger
Image |

Gloria Salgado Gispert

Drones are much more cost-effective than hiring a plane.
Researchers can even operate these drones from the back of a boat.
. Credit: Murdoch University
View Larger
Image |

Murdoch University

Researchers can even operate these drones from the back of a boat.

Who doesn’t love a dugong?

Dugongs are insanely cute and incredibly important.

“They’re my favourite species on the planet,” says Amanda. “They’re the only herbivorous marine mammal, and they’re really unique genetically.”

However, dugongs often live in super-remote spots, and they’re shy animals. This makes them tricky (and expensive) to study.

View Larger
Dugongs are incredibly cute and incredibly hard to study

“We’re lacking essential information on dugongs, such as where they are, how many they are, how we can protect them,” says Amanda’s team member Dr Christophe Cleguer, who has spent hundreds of hours in small planes, spotting dugongs.

Super-speedy onboard processing

Christophe recently undertook a 3-week test survey along WA’s Pilbara coast.

He tested a few different drones, with one standout: the WingtraOne.

View Larger
Image|Murdoch University
WingtraOne is the drone of choice for Amanda and Christophe

The WingtraOne is a hybrid drone mostly used in mining and forestry work.

It can take off and land vertically, like a helicopter, which is vital for operation on a small boat.

Once airborne, it flies like a fixed-wing aeroplane, which improves its range. It can also be equipped with a very high-resolution camera.

“It’s a balance between needing a particular resolution to detect and identify dugongs and covering as much area as possible,” says Christophe.

“Drones really open new opportunities... Using a drone, you can pinpoint the location of a dugong very precisely, down to tens of metres.”

The drones collected thousands of images, which were all processed by the team’s high-speed onboard dugong-spotting algorithm.

“In a matter of days, we could create maps of dugong distribution and density,” says Christophe. “That’s really exciting.”

The algorithm already recognises dugongs 70% of the time, and its performance will improve as more photos are collected.

View Larger
Image|A mother and calf and a single adult, viewed from a drone.
Christophe Cleguer

New directions

Drones free researchers from the need to find, fund and fly a small plane.

“Drones really open new opportunities,” Christophe says. “Using a drone, you can pinpoint the location of a dugong very precisely, down to tens of metres.”

Amanda agrees: “Previously, we didn’t have any way of monitoring a really small location. Now we can continually monitor an area for days at a time.”

Australia has large populations of dugongs, particularly in Shark Bay and Torres Strait.

“Outside of the Australian boundary, from East Africa to Vanuatu, it’s really just pockets of dugongs left,” Christophe says.

Now, we can use drones to learn more than ever about these incredible creatures.

“It’s exciting to study a species that not much is known about,” Amanda says. “We have the opportunity to discover so much.”

Particle Puns


Creative Commons Logo

Republishing our content

We want our stories to be shared and seen by as many people as possible.

Therefore, unless it says otherwise, copyright on the stories on Particle belongs to Scitech and they are published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

This allows you to republish our articles online or in print for free. You just need to credit us and link to us, and you can’t edit our material or sell it separately.

Using the ‘republish’ button on our website is the easiest way to meet our guidelines.


You cannot edit the article.

When republishing, you have to credit our authors, ideally in the byline. You have to credit Particle with a link back to the original publication on Particle.

If you’re republishing online, you must use our pageview counter, link to us and include links from our story. Our page view counter is a small pixel-ping (invisible to the eye) that allows us to know when our content is republished. It’s a condition of our guidelines that you include our counter. If you use the ‘republish’ then you’ll capture our page counter.

If you’re republishing in print, please email us to let us so we know about it (we get very proud to see our work republished) and you must include the Particle logo next to the credits. Download logo here.

If you wish to republish all our stories, please contact us directly to discuss this opportunity.


Most of the images used on Particle are copyright of the photographer who made them.

It is your responsibility to confirm that you’re licensed to republish images in our articles.


All Particle videos can be accessed through YouTube under the Standard YouTube Licence.

The Standard YouTube licence

  1. This licence is ‘All Rights Reserved’, granting provisions for YouTube to display the content, and YouTube’s visitors to stream the content. This means that the content may be streamed from YouTube but specifically forbids downloading, adaptation, and redistribution, except where otherwise licensed. When uploading your content to YouTube it will automatically use the Standard YouTube licence. You can check this by clicking on Advanced Settings and looking at the dropdown box ‘License and rights ownership’.
  2. When a user is uploading a video he has license options that he can choose from. The first option is “standard YouTube License” which means that you grant the broadcasting rights to YouTube. This essentially means that your video can only be accessed from YouTube for watching purpose and cannot be reproduced or distributed in any other form without your consent.


For more information about using our content, email us:

Copy this HTML into your CMS
Press Ctrl+C to copy

We've got chemistry. Want something physical?