I spent the first part of this week in Denver at a meeting of the National Wetland Monitoring and Assessment Workgroup. And, even though I know that wetlanders are an innovative bunch, I was a bit surprised when a number of states talked about their potential use of drones to collect data. Some of the meeting participants responded with glee to this idea while others groaned – depending I assume on one’s preference for high tech or muddy boots.
So today I took a quick wander through the web to get a little more up to speed, and found that I am even more out of touch than I thought. Widespread use of drones for conservation purposes is in place from here to Abu Dhabi. I found out that former military drones turned over to the U.S. Geological Survey were used in 2010 to monitor sandhill cranes using a heat sensor – count the light spots in this image – a method found to be as accurate as counts from manned flights. This was the first non-military use of the drones, but the technology was quickly applied in many other biological surveys as described in the New York Times article listed at the end of the post.
And here’s a piece of equipment that looks right out of Star Wars, being used in Abu Dahbi to track flamingo populations in a wetland preserve, in a cost effective manner that importantly minimizes human disturbance.
In Michigan, wetland biodiversity studies are being carried out at Central Michigan University by Dr. Benjamin Heurmann using an unmanned helicopter drone. Click here for an article about this work, including a recording of a National Public Radio (NPR) report on the project.
As noted by Dr. Heurmann, FAA has put restrictions in place that limit the use of drones for research without FAA permission. Final regulations are still under development, but interim regulations have proven problematic for some research projects as noted in recent articles from the New York Times and the Boston Globe. This is an issue to be aware of before placing your order with Amazon. It should also be noted that use of drones for environmental research appears to be almost completely limited at this point to public lands – flying drones over private property is not something that anyone is comfortable doing at this point.
However, the use of drones is likely to gain acceptance as we become familiar with the technology, and as privacy rules are sorted out. Agricultural interests have already moved beyond the obvious benefits of present-time low altitude photography, with the addition of other sensors to gather data on plants and soils. Here is a link to another NPR interview with a very enthusiastic Professor Bruno Basso of Michigan State University’s Kellogg Biological Station. Dr. Basso describes the use of drones to evaluate soil and plant moisture in fields of growing crops to guide irrigation decisions (with clear implications for water conservation). Levels of nitrogen deficiency in plants detected from a drone can also provide a precise guide for fertilizer application, saving farmers money and saving water resources from excessive and needless nitrogen runoff. The benefits to the landowners are such that some farmers are obtaining their own equipment. Dr. Basso also discusses costs, benefits, and regulatory issues.
It will be interesting to see how this technology develops over the next few years. The appeal of a drone will likely be irresistible in remote areas, in wetlands where walking on the surface is difficult, or in sensitive and easily disturbed habitats. But keep your rubber boots handy – nothing substitutes for a hands-on look for many purposes. And those drones aren’t digging soil pits… yet.
For more reading and listening:
- Flying unmanned helicopters for science in Michigan: click here for a story and link to NPR recording
- Regulation of research drones: click here and here
- Flamingo monitoring in a wetland reserve in Abu Dhabi: click here
- A Drones Eye View of Nature – New York Times: click here
- Expert: Drone technology – a game changer in agriculture: click here for a link to the NPR recording