The importance of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in remote sensing is rapidly growing. However, knowledge about their potential impact on wildlife is scant, especially in the Antarctic, where they are a new tool used in ecological research and monitoring.
In this preliminary study we investigate potential effects of wildlife disturbance by UAVs. In austral summer 2014-2015 UAV overflights were conducted, in the Adelié penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae) colony at Pt. Thomas (Western Shore of Admiralty Bay, King George Island, Antarctic, subarea 48.1). The impact of electric and combustion engine UAV flying at the altitude of 300-350 m AGL (Above Ground Level) over the colony were compared to undisturbed colony, and to natural disturbance (skua Stercorarius sp. flying over nesting penguins). Penguin behavior was divided into: resting behavior, comfort behavior, vigilance/anxiety and aggression. Percentages of birds exhibiting different types of behavior, time spent on each type of behavior and number of different types of behavior displayed by one bird during the observation periods were compared. No differences were found between control and overflights by electric UAVs. During the overflight by UAV powered by combustion engine, symptoms of vigilance were noticed with penguins looking up and around for a few seconds when UAV was overhead. Similar symptoms of vigilance were observed when skua flew (aprox. 5 m AGL) over penguin colony without trying to attack nesting birds. No increase in aggressive behavior was observed during the overflights. Plans for a systematic monitoring of UAV impact on wildlife, as well as preliminary guidelines for the next field season were formulated.