WDFW scientists going to great heights to collect scientific data

Over the last few years, data collection methods at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) have really taken off. For decades, WDFW relied on aerial surveys to collect data and survey large areas. These flights, either in small planes or helicopters, are expensive, time consuming, and always come with some level of danger to those on board.

Now, WDFW scientists are improving data collection using new developments in drone technology.

Three people standing near a truck photographed by a drone
Jane Atha, George Fornes, and Hannah Faulkner as the drone heads out to collect images of Yellowjacket Creek

A bird’s eye view on moose

WDFW’s first drone flight took place in December 2017 to explore the feasibility of using Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), also known as drones, for wildlife research in a northeast Washington moose study. The study showed that in December, with about 100% snow cover and after deciduous shrubs and trees have lost their leaves, drone imagery helped determine if a calf was with a GPS-collared moose. Researchers also recognized that they were able to have a better view of moose and caused less disturbance to the animals compared to when researchers were flying above in planes or helicopters or walking on foot.

WDFW’s UAS policy* was first approved in 2017, allowing the department to begin using drones for wildlife conservation and management research. The policy and procedures provide guidance to department staff and contractors when using drones on any WDFW-sponsored projects.

Benefits of drones for wildlife research

In June 2019, WDFW staff Jane Atha, Hannah Faulkner, and George Fornes used a drone to survey salmon spawning habitat in sections of Yellowjacket Creek in Lewis County. George requested the service of Jane and Hannah to determine if using a drone could substitute for a ground survey. Meanwhile a field crew hiked up the creek collecting data to compare to the drone images.

“Turned out it could, saving time and reducing risk,” said George. “Instead of a crew hiking long distances in steep canyons, the drones were able to provide the same information in less time and without risk of injury to the team.”

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules, always require any drone pilot to keep the drone in their visual line of sight. In this case, Jane, Hannah, and George launched from a high spot on a nearby hillside with a view of the creek canyon. The drone stayed above the treetops, to ensure the pilot or visual observer could see the drone at all times, with the camera pointed straight down to capture the creek.

The FAA has pilot requirements that depend on the drone’s purpose. If the operator of the drone’s main intent is just for fun, it’s considered recreational and no pilot license is required. Drones operated for work require pilots to be licensed, which involves passing a test to be FAA certified. All drone pilots are required to abide by the FAA rules.

Observing changes to the landscape over time

Jane Atha, a fluvial geomorphologist, and Hannah Faulkner, a nearshore ecologist, started using drones to take repeat aerial imagery along marked GPS points of habitat restoration projects. With specialized software, researchers use drone images to create high-resolution models of the landscape. The software and technology allow Jane and Hannah to revisit sites with relative frequency, greater ease, and at a lower cost than lidar (a method that measures distance using laser light and measuring the reflection). Thanks to aerial images and high-resolution models, researchers can document changing landscape conditions over time.

Woman standing near river with a remote control to pilot a drone that is on the grass nearby
Jane Atha

“Nothing beats being able to see landforms and restoration projects from above,” says Jane. “It’s possible to see how forms and systems are interconnected, and how they change through space and time. Drones also allow safe access to remote areas, and to see things from a birds-eye perspective.”

Hannah has also initiated several streamlining processes to assist WDFW staff as they fly over areas of high use restrictions, including US Navy airspace and Washington State Parks. For example, Hannah worked closely with staff inside and outside the agency to acquire essential insurance and develop an agreement with State Parks which allows WDFW aircrafts to be flown in any park area.

“Building successful lines of communication is important for novel technologies and methods like this,” says Hannah, “both within WDFW, between our management, policy, and research staff, and outside the agency to advance trusting relationships among the breadth of project proponents.”

Adapting to new technology

Trying a new technology can also present unique challenges. In the winter of 2018, WDFW biologist Jon Gallie had an opportunity to use drones on their annual pygmy rabbit survey to estimate population size and distribution. Snow-covered ground provides the best opportunity to locate tracks, fecal pellets, and burrow systems. In areas of low-density rabbits or in potential, but not confirmed occupied habitat, searching for pygmy rabbit evidence is very labor intensive.

“Looking for an effective method to search large areas, we tested the use of drones,” said Jon. “Taking high resolution pictures of the survey area allowed us to view the imagery on laptops and identify pygmy rabbit activity in the snow.”

Using drones reduced field time by 90 percent. A student at Big Bend Community College piloted the drone and processed the imagery as an independent project to complete his degree. However, there were only a few days all winter that had the right snow and sky conditions to fly the drone and observe pygmy rabbit activity. Another challenge was the data files from the drone were too big for standard computers to process.

“Overall, it was a very impressive tool, but like all new technology, it has limitations that prevents it from being a tool for all of our survey needs”, Jon concluded.

The sky is the limit

George Fornes, a biologist with WDFW, says the agency is just starting to realize the potential uses of drones for data collection. Some ways he thinks drones could be used in the future include surveys of salmon redds (nests in rivers), sandhill crane nest sites, waterfowl populations, identifying Scotch broom and other invasive species for removal, and deer/elk populations.

Not short on future project ideas, George also thinks WDFW could use drones to monitor changing field conditions over time, performance of engineered log structures placed in streams for the benefit of fish, and fish stranding/dewatered redds. Drones also could provide access to hard-to-reach locations, like ravines or large wetlands.

Given their cost effectiveness and the new opportunities they provide for data collection, drone use in wildlife conservation and management is likely to continue to increase.

To find out more about the use of drones in conservation, visit conservationdrones.org and nwf.org.

You can also stay up-to-date with upcoming WDFW news by subscribing to our e-mail list that best suits your interests.

Jane Atha and Hannah Faulkner using a drone to collect data at Leque Island

*WDFW Policy states that:

  • When appropriate, the department may use UAS to monitor and manage Washington’s natural resources and agency infrastructure.
  • Executive management approval is required.
  • Compliance with all Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations and requirements is compulsory.
  • When using UAS, the department will respect the right to privacy.
  • When using UAS, operators will minimize impacts to fish and wildlife.
  • The department will minimize the collection of data unrelated to the specific project involving UAS use, including minimizing the collection of personal information.
  • The department will develop and follow a project plan.
  • The department will provide information about UAS to the public through its website and other communication channels.
  • The department will assess public outreach needs prior to conducting proposed projects using UAS.
  • When using UAS, the department will maintain records related to each project and flight.
  • When using UAS, the department may collaborate with partners.



The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.