Getting eyes in the sky could mean great things for conservation efforts of all kinds. Already we are seeing drones put to use in ridding Australia's rainforests of invasive weeds, warding off would-be poachers of African wildlife and monitoring killer whales off the west coast of North America. Another beneficiary of this versatile technology could be endangered chimpanzees living in remote jungle locations. By equipping drones with cameras researchers have been able to pick out their nests from above, greatly assisting in efforts to conserve their dwindling populations.

As their population has plummeted in the last two or three decades, the International Union for Conservation for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has come to class chimpanzees as endangered. Monitoring where they live deep in the tropical forests of Africa is critical, as it allows conservationists to detect changes in these tiny populations and identify when they might be becoming dangerously low.

Such monitoring has traditionally required expensive and time-consuming ground surveys, as researchers spend hours traipsing the terrain by foot and counting nests. And because the animals often build these nests beneath the canopy, there was an degree of skepticism as to whether aerial surveying would work.

But a new study carried out by researchers from the IUCN and Liverpool John Moores University has demonstrated that these domiciles can be picked out by drone. The researchers used low-cost drones to snap a large number of photos in a 20-minute flight over an area that would otherwise have taken ground surveyors hours to cover. In viewing the images the researchers were able to detect nests, demonstrating a new technique that could save conservationists time and money.

"The results of this study show that drones can be a new tool to determine faster whether chimpanzees are present in a certain area," says Alexander van Andel from the IUCN and one of the study's co-authors. "In addition the study shows that habitat suitability can be determined by drones by identifying tree species which are important in the chimpanzee diet."

The research was published in the journal American Journal for Primatology.

View gallery - 4 images