Friday, July 18, 2014

Drones in Biodiversity Research

Ecologists require spatially explicit data to relate structure to function. To date, most of such data came from remote-sensing instruments mounted on spacecraft (satellites) or manned aircraft. However, the spatial and temporal resolutions of those data are quite often not suitable for smaller local-scale investigations.

Relatively cheap and portable, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) better known as drones fill a gap between satellite and manned aircraft imagery and on-the-ground observations. They are lightweight, low-cost aircraft platforms operated from the ground that can carry imaging or non-imaging payloads. Flying low and slow, drones can deliver fine spatial resolution data at temporal resolutions defined by the user. New models can operate completely independent using GPS data for autonomous flight. Other models can be remotely controlled even with live video transmission to a smartphone.

Not surprisingly a lot of field biologists (not limited to ecologists) are flocking to drones. UAVs are also becoming an essential tool for managing wildlife and fighting poachers:

This was reason enough for us to get one of the more affordable models (dji Phantom 2), equip it with a GoPro Hero and test it for a variety of uses. The potential uses are almost unlimited but we were first focusing on its use to provide quality footage for our educational video resources.

So far we had a few test flights and the footage hasn't been edited properly but it is impressive what one can do with these little toys. Here are two examples of raw video material just slightly edited. The first video shows the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario (BIO) from a different perspective.

Video number two is an early version of a short video about one of the researchers here at the university - Dr. Alex Smith and his work with the GigaPan system. Note the use of the GoPro time lapse function

Both videos end rather abruptly which is the result of the unfinished editing process and not a technical problem although we had a few minor crashes. Overall, the UAV we are using is easy to handle, very versatile. It works quit nicely with the equally versatile GoPro camera. The system is also capable of pre-programmed autonomous flight (using an iOS app) but I haven't tested that yet. The remote control of the system is not as intuitive as it could be and even for someone with experience in RC model operation it requires some relearning. The Phantom drone is small and lightweight but there also lies a problem as it is very sensitive to stronger wind and occasional gusts which is a bit challenging for the pilot. The drone batteries allow for a flight time of about 20 min, the range of the remote is 1 km. Together with a good GoPro camera you are looking at an expense of  about $1500.

We will test the UAV further and will soon move on to more scientific use. As the GoPro is capable of very high resolutions we will test how well the system works to map and document habitat in which we place our traps. I'll keep you posted.

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