What To, and What Not To Take Pictures of, With Drones

I’m going through American Mistletoe observations in the US, state by state, to help identify them, and in Texas, one person has uploaded many photos of them from above taken with drones! On the first observation like this I thought it was interesting, but a dozen later, I see why these observations haven’t gotten to Research Grade yet, despite their age (They’re from 2018, I always sort my identify tool to show me the oldest ones first)

So I thought it’d be fun / helpful to make a list of species that drones are not the best to get pictures of, either because like with Mistletoe, pictures from the ground will offer better identifiability (is that a word? I’m making it one now!), or for ethical reasons, like stressing out or endangering the animals, and a list of ones that are okay to get pictures of with drones, if any.

I’ll start, lol:

Drone is probably a bad choice: American Mistletoe ( [Phoradendron leucarpum)

Why? Unless you have enough control over the drone to get very close and thus get detailed pictures you couldn’t get from the ground, the brighter lighting from above makes the mistletoe blend in with the ground and branches, and makes it much harder to see. Photos taken from the ground will always have a shadow on them from the sun, making them much easier to spot in the first place, and then easier to identify. Drone photos from above or to the side 50+feet away aren’t as easy to identify as ones from the ground at the same distance.


Birds. Please do not operate or pilot drones around birds, especially migratory nesting sites.

For example, last year, a likely well meaning drone pilot lost control of the craft leading to it crashing into and disturbing the nesting site of over 1500 Elegant Tern, causing them to abandon their chicks and their nests, potentially in perpetuity.

In addition to the risk of crashing into nesting areas, drones are at risk of collisions and attacks from raptors, and likely a number of other species, that could confuse a swift-moving drone with a mate, a competitor, or a source of prey.


Here’s a previous discussion about drones: https://forum.inaturalist.org/t/using-drones-for-inat/32773

Ethical/disturbance reasoning aside, I don’t think drones are a good fit for iNat, which is about your personal interactions/observations of nature, not large scale data collection via drone.


I spent some time with a crew who were filming lemurs in Madagascar for the BBC Planet Earth II natural history series a few years ago, and they were pleasantly surprised to find the lemurs were not particularly bothered by the camera drones. They told me that they had been unable to film elephants from drones because they would always get freaked out and start stampeding. Apparently this reaction has been observed widely by various park management organisations etc when using drones around elephants. The consensus seems to be that the herds react to the sound of a drone in the same way they do to a large swarm of bees.

(I should add that have seen some drone footage of elephants more recently, in which the animals didn’t seem perturbed. I guess it may be due to the fact drone technology is advancing so rapidly: they have been getting smaller and quieter, and also more stable allowing telephoto lenses to be used from a greater distance.)


I’m with you on the view on large-scale data collection not really belonging on iNat, but I think drones are useful for much more than that. Especially now that even quite small and affordable ones can be really good. For instance, for taking photos of plants growing on an inaccessible cliff-face or inside the crater of a volcano (assuming it can be done without disturbing birds etc), I would view it as a tool in the same category as a selfie stick that can be so useful in getting your camera into difficult-to-reach places.


… possibly, it bothered other animals and birds or insects around the lemurs? who knows?

Yesterday we saw a small, but noisy helicopter making big circles around Half Moon Bay Harbor. With each circuit, the pelicans left off feeding and flew off, while other smaller shore birds seemed less disturbed. Yet, the less noisy single engine planes did not seem to fuss the pelicans.


Indeed, although I ought to mention that they did appear to be following a very rigorous ethical policy around drone use. They always work with scientists who are studying the animals locally, and consult closely with them to ensure nothing they do causes unnatural behaviour. They had a whole process to go through that meant it was 2–3 weeks before they could even start any drone work. On the first day for example, at a distance of 200m from the animals they would take the drone up to 2 metres and straight back down, and observe if the animals reacted. Next day at a 150m distance they would take it up to 5 metres and hover for one minute and observe again. Each day they would take things a step further, while the scientists monitored for any alarm calls or signs of stress or unnatural behaviours, until eventually they were confident they could operate the drones at the required distance without causing any disturbance.


Agreed, but those situations are not that incredibly common

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Drone may be a good choice: Perityle cernua, Agastache pringlei var. verticillata, Castilleja organorum, Scrophularia laevis.

Why? These are very rare plants limited to very steep, cliffy areas in the Organ Mountains of southern New Mexico. It is very difficult to access or do any kind of useful work in most of the habitat, so we know very little about their population sizes, trends in abundance over time, or threats to them. Drones would probably be the only feasible way to resolve this. On the other hand, most of the habitat has been designated as Wilderness, which places pretty severe restrictions on the ability to use drones or similar technology.

Because populations of these plants are apparently quite small and they are restricted to a small, isolated, high-elevation patch of habitat, climate change is likely to be a major threat to them. Given the logistical and bureaucratic / legal obstacles that make it difficult to learn more about them, I think the most likely scenario is that they will go extinct before we have any good understanding of whether or not there are conservation actions that might prevent their extinction.


That must’ve been pretty cool. Thanks for sharing your thoughts so clearly.


not the OP who proposed the question,
but thanks!

Drones can be really useful for monitoring wetland restoration sites, because they cover a ton of ground, can be used when the sites are flooded, and can make very precise maps of where invasive and native plants are.


Used thoughtfully, drones are OK. Our sharkspotters along False Bay use drones. Makes it possible to move past - there’s a shark! To naming what sort of shark and evaluating the risk to swimmers. We also have a marine life friendly shark net - which is taken out each morning, then in again overnight - weather permitting.


It’s also important to not just compare drones to a situation of no disturbance, but to the disturbance that would be generated by other types of monitoring/observation. Humans going into/out of an area also causes disturbance and potentially physical damage to some organisms or the environment. Using boats to survey in an aquatic environment is also a type of disturbance. And other types of observation using most motorized devices will produce chemical and noise pollution. Drones are relatively lower impact in those areas, and combined with a cost/time savings, this may more than make up for their downsides in some cases.


To be honest, i find iNat’s guidelines around use really confusing and kind of frustrating. So to preface, i think it’s awful to use drones to observe animals bothered by drones, to use drones when people are bothered by them, etc. But in terms of whether specifically appropriate for inat… it’s bad to use a drone which is basically a flying camera, but if holding the camera/phone it is fine and using a camera attached to a tree is fine. But what if someone has a mobility related disability? iNat is supposed to be one person’s observation of one organism, but with a bunch of exceptions. It feels like it’s often balanced that way to help the gamification aspects feel ‘fair’ (like, it doesnt count for the game if i am using a drone and not physically there), however we are also told dont focus oh the gamification because it doesn’t matter. But there are leaderboards. But we shouldn’t worry about them. But we shouldn’t share accounts with someone else because that’s bad for the leaderboard. But if they are a kid it’s ok. But the kid can’t use a drone.

Same with the thing how ‘inaturalist is supposed to be about connecting people with nature, not about hard science’. We are told this so we don’t pursue too much data QC for things like location or whether something si cultivated. Because it might alienate casual users. However, when it comes to taxonomy, the One True Scientific Name must always be used, and it changes regularly making it very very confusing for new users, much more so than if they are asked whether their location is correct. So if iNat is just about Connecting People with Nature, why do we need to change the name of a species six times in five years, sending all kinds of notifications and cancelled IDs and such?

The moderation is also rather inconsistent and some people are allowed to do things others are not. As an autistic person who tries to follow rules precisely, it’s gotten harder and harder to feel like a part of the community here. iNat has been such an important part of my life for so long, and i don’t feel that welcome any more. :(


Ah, @charlie You are a very valued and important member of the community, and you’ve done so much important outreach and inclusiveness awareness here. I am sad to learn you feel this way now. I’d noticed you participating less on the forum, but I’d assumed that was due to other demands and interests taking over your time. I surely hope you realize you are a powerful force for good here.

I see what you mean about the confusing values shown among different interpretations of the guidelines, but communicating among humans is such an inexact art; it will likely never be more than an approximation thoughts and intentions. If there wasn’t a certain amount of slippage, we’d all be like robots only following our programming.


Can we merge this into the post “Using Drones for Inat”?

If we can use game cameras (where you’re in no way even see the animal that your camera captures), drones should be allowed too.


There you go. A camera trap is in no way one person’s encounter with an organism.

People worry about privacy with drones; well, I have long had a similar worry about trail cams. Even if they are mounted off-trail, well, I sometimes go off-trail, too. If I step behind a bush to relieve myself, not seeing the trail cam, that is a nonconsensual picture of an activity I’d just as soon not be photographed doing.

I find that true of every situation, everywhere. It’s the reason I have so much resentment about elementary school.

Anyway, the topic is a useful one. Probably the people photographing the mistletoe thought that by getting closer, they could show more detail. Taking the picture from level with the mistletoe, rather than above, perhaps against a fairly plain background like the sky or the tree trunk, might achieve that better. Canopy biodiverity is disproportionately underrepresented, not just on iNat, but in the general consciousness of our species, because we can see best what is at or near ground level. In my Tropical Rainforests course, I learned that early naturalists often shot down tree branches to obtain herbarium specimens of flowers and foliage that were out of reach. Drones could be useful for photgraphing the flowers, foliage, and fruits of tall trees; epiphytes; and possibly canopy insects – there are many insect species in rainforests that never descend from the canopy.

The downside, though, is that you would need to be careful not to disturb birds, monkeys, and other canopy-living vertebrates.


To be fair, i’ve also been dealing with some pretty heavy personal life stuff, and also, i am not saying i am leaving iNat. Just a bit less active in community spaces. Mostly i wanted to point out that some of these rules for what is or isn’t OK on iNat feel really arbitrary and hard to navigate.