As people around the world set out to purchase drones for fun and to enhance video footage, these fun little devices have also been used within the ecological studies to fill in missing pieces of data collection from the past.
Using drones for ecological studies proves most beneficial for long-term durations. Past conventional methods of collecting data relied on researchers scavenging the research site on foot. However, areas can remain which are virtually impossible to access, and this is where these micro-unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) come into play.
— Bonnie Duong (@duong_bonnie) November 10, 2016
These drones can be used in a variety of applications in plant ecology including (but not limited to) mapping vegetation, observation of rare and threatened plant populations, surveying agriculture, measuring carbon storage, and monitoring pest infestation using remote sensing. Novel applications are continually discovered as drones are being more prominently used in ecological research studies.
“This technology is going to be revolutionary for a lot of [ecology] related fields.”
– Adam Watts, assistant research professor at Nevada’s Desert Research Institute
For example, images that drones capture can be used to map individual species in the landscape. This is done by mapping the unique spectral light values emitted by each plant under study that derive from plant leaf or flower colours. When drones are paired with 3D technology, plant height and size can be measured. Images produced by drones have been proven useful in studying plant health, phenology, reproduction, tracking disease, and surveying habitat disturbances caused by human activity.
The use of UAVs have been proven to be a more environmentally friendly option compared to similar missions that require the use of manned helicopters. It costs an average of $3000 to fly a UAV for a week with a ground crew compared to a helicopter mission that may cost anywhere from $30,000-$50,000. These drones have smaller ecological footprints than flying an aircraft. Another advantage of using UAVs is the fact that their engines are much more quieter, thus posing less disruption to studies and wildlife. Perhaps the most advantageous aspect of using UAVs is the fact that these devices are unmanned. This eliminates the possibility of accidental mortality of wildlife researchers when flying in a plane or helicopter.
With the emergence of new technologies, disadvantages and setbacks are bound to occur. One minor disadvantage is that the unmanned vehicles can be difficult at first to maneuver, but this can be overcome with practice and patience. Another thing to consider is that it is often difficult to convince members of the public that these drones are used in a way that is non-intrusive. People may not be very fond of having a camera flying above in the sky, as some individuals may interpret it as an invasion of privacy. Researchers also have to consider regional regulations prior to setting off to fly a drone in any area of interest.
“The other challenge, is to convince the public that these planes are not going to be used for terrible things.”
– David Bird, professor of Wildlife Biology
With the vast areas that were once neglected open to exploration through the use of aerial robotics, the use of drones has can to lead to a greater under understanding of the plant ecology around us. This wonderful technological application can potentially fill in the missing puzzle pieces of previously-unexplorable areas through the collection of data.
Botanical Society of America. “Drones take off in plant ecological research: New review explores how to speed up and scale up plant research with aerial robotics.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 31 October 2016. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/10/161031113546.htm>.
Cruzan M. B., Weinstein B. G., Grasty M. R., Kohrn B. F., Hendrickson E. C., Arredondo T. (2016). M., Thompson P. G. Small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (Micro-Uavs, Drones) in Plant Ecology. Appl Plant Sci. 4(9): 1600041 DOI:10.3732/apps.1600041.
Ogden L.E. (2013). Drone Ecology. BioScience. 63(9): 776.