A drone has been used to count a colony of Atlantic Grey seal pups for the first time.
Located off the Northumberland Coast, Ritchie Southerton Photography used a DJI Phantom 4 Pro purchased from local UAV specialist Heliguy for the job.
The work, carried out in November but only recently published, successfully counted 2,602 seal pups compared to 1,740 in 2014.
According to a report from Heliguy, experts believe the use of a drone in this way can help make the counts more accurate and efficient while causing less stress for the seals.
Ritchie Southerton Photography worked alongside National trust rangers to complete the work.
Thomas Hendry, one of the rangers on hand, said: “The drone gave us an excellent view of the islands and from the clear images we could count the total numbers of seal pups on each island. As the footage was taken while we were spraying, we used the image counts to check against the numbers we got on the ground.”
He added: “It also allowed us to see onto the smaller islands which are more challenging to land in difficult sea conditions.”
Reflecting on the count, Ritchie, a commercial drone operator since 2015, was happy with the success of the mission and pleased the drone could be used to help the cause.
He said: “The drone, which was compact and easy to transport, helped with the accuracy of the count and it allowed me to fly over the seals and get close to them without disturbing them, which was less intrusive for them and safer for us – as the mother seals can get quite protective and are prone to chasing you.”
He explained: “The drone also helped to save time. On the first day, the drone counted 200 more seals than what was achieved on foot. To help count the seals, we put a grid over the images the drone captured and counted the seal pups at the end of every day.”
Discussing his choice of drone, Southerton couldn’t speak highly enough of the DJI Phantom.
He continued: “Its compact size makes it so useful when working in harsh environments or from small boats, but you can still achieve amazing results with such a cost-effective platform.
“The Phantom 4 Pro was the perfect choice, due its compact size, which makes it incredibly portable. It also has a very good camera with good battery life with 25-30 minutes of flying time and it worked faultlessly operating from a small boat and in damp conditions from staying on the islands for five weeks.”
In total, Ritchie conducted 71 flights over an 18-hour period, covering 189,742 metres and capturing 4,000 still images, helping to count just over 2,600 seal pups.