Science for a Blue Planet

Featuring cutting-edge work, discoveries, and challenges of our scientists, our partners, and the larger conservation science community.

The Perfect Penguin Survey

By Parker Levinson, 2019-2020 Antarctica Program Intern

A couple weeks after accepting an internship offer from Point Blue to study Adélie Penguins in Antarctica, I got a call: we’ll be flying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) otherwise known as drones. You’ll need to get a license through the Federal Aviation Association (FAA). 

How would learning to fly a drone help me study penguins?

I’d slowly become comfortable calling myself a wildlife field biologist since graduating college in 2018. I like walking purposefully and quietly to avoid disturbance. I like staring through binoculars to identify individual animals and hypothesize about their life. But the phone call forced me to pause. How would learning to fly a drone help me study penguins? This confusion stuck with me as I anxiously studied for the pilot test and the GRE (the entrance exam for graduate school) while figuring out exactly what thickness of down jacket I needed for Antarctica. Was spending hours deciphering a pilot’s weather report – KO69 121735Z AUTO 25007KT 7SM – worth my time? Was that a skill I needed as a wildlife biologist?

Pretty soon the whole team met up to practice flying drones. It was the first time I met my colleagues who I’d soon be working with in Antarctica, and it was the first time I’d ever flown a drone, let alone a multi-thousand dollar quadcopter. I was nervous to say the least.

Me flying a UAV at the Baylands Nature Preserve in Palo Alto, CA moments before a gust of wind sent it towards a Eucalyptus tree. Photo Credit: Annie Schmidt

I pushed the left joystick up with my thumb, and the thing rushed upwards. I practiced turning and soon felt comfortable to pick up a bit of speed. Then a big gust of wind came, sending the precious drone straight towards a giant eucalyptus tree. Terrified with the image of crashing a drone on my first day on the job, I piloted full throttle towards what I thought was the open field. In my panic, I had forgotten which direction the UAV was facing and instead sent my drone speeding closer to the tree. I was paralyzed with fear. From behind me, I heard a voice: “Right joystick to the left, left joystick down, that’s it,…” 

I was patiently coached as I flew the drone away from the tree and landed it intact. I didn’t know it then, but this was the type of support that my team and Point Blue never failed to provide. 

Mastering the Baby Wipe Shower and Launching Drones

Fast forward two months. I was living in a tent near one of the largest Adélie Penguin colonies in the world: Cape Crozier, Ross Island, Antarctica. I’d mastered “showering” with baby wipes and handling my first penguin. I was embodying what I thought it meant to be a wildlife biologist. 

Then we started flying drones. Our goals this season were to demonstrate the first use of a multi-UAV system in Antarctica and to conduct at least two complete surveys, hopefully more, at two different Adélie Penguin colonies. The first survey was targeted for the end of November to photograph the peak number of nesting Adélies so we could get an accurate population count. In mid-January, we would capture images of chicks in the creche stage (when adults leave to forage and chicks enter into large groups for safety) to learn how many chicks each pair of penguins raised. 

With the combination of these surveys, we would finally get a detailed picture of the breeding variation across the massive colony. This unprecedented detail will allow us to answer questions scientists have had for years. Are areas where penguins nest more closely together more successful than where they are spread out? Are certain nesting areas more vulnerable to snowfall and flooding expected with a warming climate? And by collecting these data every year, we can use the condition of Adélie Penguins as a proxy for the health of the Ross Sea ecosystem in order to help monitor the impact of the newly established marine protected area

But first we had to photograph the entire colony with UAVs automatically flying routes and taking photos every couple seconds. Because the colony is incredibly large, we flew multiple drones at once for a faster, more efficient survey that could photograph every area of the colony and be completed in hours instead of days. With 3 pilots, 4 drones, 13 routes, and 16 batteries, it was a complex process to get a survey right. It required a lot of communication and team problem solving. 

The “Body Roll” Technique

Like most work in Antarctica, surveys rarely went exactly as planned. On our first scheduled survey day in early December, the snow finally stopped falling, and we were ready to fly. But as we geared up for the survey, we realized the landing zones were buried under at least 2 feet of snow, an unusual occurrence given that Antarctica is the world’s largest desert. Before we could fly, we had to compress about a tennis court of snow to create four flat and stable areas where the drones could land. A colleague and I put on our thick snow boots and began stomping. When this proved slow, we invented new techniques, my favorite being the “body roll” in which I laid down at the top of the landing area and rolled to the bottom, leaving a curvy but flattened five-foot track behind me. Finally, we finished compacting the snow. We were slightly out of breath but ready to start the survey albeit an hour later than planned.

Me and my colleague Virginia Morandini using a tent floor to stomp down the snow when I got too dizzy from the “body roll” method. PC Annie Schmidt

A Redefinition of Self

At the end of the day, I realized that what happens in the field on survey day will never match the perception in my head of the perfect survey. There is no perfect survey. Things will always go awry. Just as they did the very first time I flew a drone. That’s life. It’s okay. What is more important is preparing for all possible scenarios and having a plan A through Z while recognizing that we will also have to think on our feet. Only with this combination of preparedness and innovation can we push the boundaries of what is known and what is comfortable. We can develop a new way to monitor large areas, to answer previously unanswerable questions about the population at Cape Crozier, and can share our strategy with other teams around the world. It won’t be easy, it won’t always be smooth, but it will be worth it. 

As my internship comes to end, I am redefining who I am as a wildlife field biologist. Because I do love stealthily observing animals, but I have also embraced the benefit of technology to do so. Using technology bolsters our understanding of these animals, and our understanding of these animals informs how we use technology. It’s a symbiotic relationship. And one that I am proud to be a part of.


Extras: Videos from the Field

Check out the two videos below that Parker sent us from our field site at Cape Crozier, Antarctica.