Determination of optimal flight altitude to minimise acoustic drone disturbance to wildlife using species audiograms

Isla Duporge, Marcus P. Spiegel, Eleanor R. Thomson, Tatiana Chapman, Curt Lamberth, Caroline Pond, David W. Macdonald, Tiejun Wang, Holger Klinck

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Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are increasingly important in wildlife data collection but concern over wildlife disturbance has led several countries to ban their use in National Parks. Disturbance is an animal welfare concern and impedes scientific data collection through provoking aberrant behaviour. Dealing with the issue of disturbance will enable wildlife researchers to use UAV technology more effectively and ethically. Here we present a novel method to determine optimal flight altitude for minimising drone disturbance for wildlife using species audiograms. We recorded sound profiles of seven common UAV systems in the horizontal and vertical planes at 5-m increments up to 120 m. To understand how mammals perceive UAV sound, we used audiograms of 20 species to calculate the loudness of each UAV for each species across the measured distances. These calculations filter the UAV noise based on the sensitivity of species’ hearing over the relevant frequency spectrum. We have devised a method to optimise the trade-off between image spatial resolution and flight altitude. We calculated the lowest point at which either the UAV sound level decreases below an acceptable threshold, here chosen as 40 dB, weighted according to species’ hearing sensitivity, or disturbance cannot be significantly further minimised by flying higher. The latter is quantified as the point above which each additional 5 m of flight altitude causes on average less than 0.05 dB decrease in sound pressure level. Reliable data on appropriate flight altitudes can guide policy regulations on flying UAVs over wildlife, thus enabling increased use of this technology for scientific data collection and for wildlife conservation purposes. The methodology is readily applicable to other species and UAV systems for which sound recordings and audiograms are available.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-12
Number of pages12
JournalMethods in ecology and evolution
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print/First online - 31 Jul 2021


  • aerial survey
  • anthrophony
  • audiogram
  • audiometry
  • conservation
  • remote sensing
  • sound pressure level
  • unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)


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