U.S. Department of Agriculture: Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service


Date of this Version



Ecosphere. 2023;14:e4657.

DOI: 10.1002/ecs2.4657


This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License,


Surveying animal populations using drones (unoccupied aircraft systems [UAS]) provides numerous advantages; however, few best practices exist to survey animal communities with drones. Among myriad factors that can affect human identification and counts of animals from drone images, we focused on three factors typically controlled in the study design or by the drone pilot: flight altitude, camera angle, and time of day. Identifying interactions and patterns among these three variables represents an important first step to determining best survey practices. We used a drone to survey known numbers of eight animal decoy species, representing a range of body sizes and colors, at four ground sampling distance (GSD) values (0.35, 0.70, 1.06, and 1.41 cm/pixel) representing equivalent flight altitudes (15.2, 30.5, 45.7, and 61.0 m) at two camera angles (45° and 90°) and across a range of times of day (morning to late afternoon). Expert human observers identified and counted animals from drone images to determine how the three controllable factors affected accuracy and precision. Observer precision was high and unaffected by tested factors. However, results for observer accuracy revealed an interaction among all three controllable factors. Increasing flight altitude resulted in decreased accuracy in animal counts overall; however, accuracy was best at midday than during the morning and afternoon, when decoy and structure shadows were present or more pronounced. Surprisingly, the 45° camera enhanced accuracy more than the 90° camera, but only when animals were most difficult to identify and count, such as at higher flight altitudes or during the early morning and late afternoon. We provide recommendations for improving human accuracy in identifying and counting animals from drone images used in monitoring animal populations and communities. These results should be incorporated into drone survey design in addition to considering funding, logistical, and animal behavior constraints.