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Drones in Ecology: An Interview with Ecologist and FAA Certified Remote Pilot Dr. Richard Alward

BY Zacc Dukowitz
27 February 2018

Dr. Richard Alward is a biologist who specializes in plant ecology. He started using UAVs in his work a few years back, and holds a Remote Pilot Certificate, which he obtained using Drone Pilot Ground School to help him prepare for the FAA’s Part 107 test.

I had the pleasure of meeting Richard at InterDrone back in September, and wanted to follow up with him to learn more about how he uses drones in his work.

Image source

Begin interview

What do you do?

I’m a plant ecologist, which means I’m a biologist who focuses on plants and the environment in which they exist. I spend most of my time studying the plants in a given area—how environmental factors like mining or oil extraction are impacting those plants, how invasive plants are pushing out native plants, and other things like that.

One of the projects that’s near and dear to my heart is the restoration of oil and gas wildland areas.

For the last decade or so I’ve been working as a consultant for federal and state land managers and private developers and managers, helping to look at the progress oil and gas companies are making toward restoring some of these damaged ecosystems, which is part of the commitment they make when they’re given permission to drill in these places.

How have drones helped you in your work?

Drones have helped me save lots and lots of time, and they’ve also helped improve accountability for some of these companies that are responsible for restoring the areas where they drilled.

In general, it’s too expensive to go out and measure how well a company is doing on a regular basis because it takes people with a certain expertise. And these are often remote areas, so there is a lot of travel time.

This can lead to a problem with compliance and accountability, because, if a company only sends an ecologist out every five years and that person discovers that the area is not actually being restored, well, that’s five years of lost time where the company could have been doing more.

But drones help fast track all of this. Using a drone you can do a quick fly over, collect a bunch of data, and then you can use drone software to generate reports that show you how well the area is being restored.

The data collected is also so robust that you can use it to detect early signs of whether things are going wrong or right in a certain location.

Gas and oil companies are required to restore vegetation in these areas to a certain level of what it was prior to their presence, so this data is really helpful to monitor progress.

Traditionally, you’d go out there with meter tape and points you stick in the ground, and measure the species of vegetation manually at each point. It’s really time consuming, and not nearly as exact as the data we’re getting with a drone.

This is all to say that drones are a really important tool when it comes to conservation efforts. There are a lot of stakeholders here in western Colorado, where I live, who want to make sure the land is disturbed as little as possible—hunters, who want to preserve their hunting grounds; environmentalists; and other community members. And drones are helping that effort in a big way.

A slide emphasizing time saved using drones in ecology work

How accessible is drone technology for the work you do?

It’s very accessible these days, and I find that really exciting.

About five years back, drones were just too expensive to be a practical tool for me. But these days you can get a really impressive drone in terms of what it’s capable of, and it won’t cost that much. We got to that sweet spot between value and price just about two years ago.

What drone(s) do you fly?

Right now I’m flying a FireFLY6 Pro made by BirdsEyeView Aerobotics.

It’s a fixed wing, with vertical take off and landing, which was really important. In some of these remote public lands you only get a tiny space, say five by three meters, for landing and takeoff, so vertical takeoff and landing was a must.

The FireFLY6 Pro

How do you process the raw data you collect via drone into actionable insights?

Just a quick note that I’m not an image analyst myself, so apologies in advance to the talented image analysts I work with if I miss something here.

Here is the overview of how we process data:

Currently, we are using a five-band multistructural camera to collect data.

Every pixel has six pieces of data associated with it—the five bands, plus we can get an estimate of height. From the data we can pick our specific species of plants without having to do any kind of manual analysis.

We can identify things like juniper woodland areas, different types of conifers, sagebrush, and so on. Once we identify a given type of area, we can compare it to the plant cover in other areas, and look for differences or other points of interest.

It’s not perfect yet. In some cases I can’t distinguish different types of grasses, so it just comes back as grass, or some herbaceous plant. But still, it can see things at an impressive level of accuracy.

We’re also able to input different data points for comparison, such as the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), which is really helpful because it provides a baseline to compare various areas to.

Another thing we’re experimenting with is eCognition, an image analysis package that accounts for differences in texture, brightness, and other data to identify different species of plants.

I’ve also been trying out multi-spec lately, which is a free image analysis software. It allows you to identify instances of a certain species of plant you’re looking for in existing data, and then train your computer to find new instances of the same tree.

So if you want to find more Cottonwood trees, for instance, you’d draw a polygon around a tree canopy in the software, and then train the computer to find more of them in the raw data.

A slide showing various plant classifications derived from drone data

Why is this data more valuable than data collected manually?

For a few reasons.

One is that digital data lives forever. We’ll always have this permanent record of the vegetation at those precise GPS coordinates on that precise date for all time. This means we can come back 10 years later, or 100 years later, and have a record of everything that was living there at the time—even if you didn’t know what everything was at the time you recorded the data.

This last point is huge. When identifying plants, you don’t always know what every single plant is. If you’re collecting data manually, all you can do is record, Unidentified Plant #3, or something like that. But with the various data points we gather by drone, we actually have something like a unique signature for an unidentified plant. Which means someone could come along later who has identified that plant, and know what it is.

So data you collect today could provide more insights later on, which is really incredible for ecological efforts and keeping an accurate record of what lives where.

What are some actions you might take or recommend as a result of the data analyzed?

In some instances, you might find an invasive species really taking over, so you’d alert the land manager so that person can go treat the area. The next time you survey the area, you can track whether the invasive species has been reduced, and how by much, as well as identify persistent problem areas for the land manager to tend to.

We also discover areas that simply need more attention, where vegetation has been slow to get a foothold, and we can give similar recommendations to the land manager in these instances too.

A slide highlighting the restoration actions that result from data collected via drone

Do you see drone adoption growing in your field?

Right now we are still in an exploratory stage. I think there is still the need for more education and validation that this new approach is at least as good as current approaches.

We have the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies watching pretty closely, curious to see how they could use drones in their operations. But I wouldn’t be surprised if data collection at the level we can do via drone starts to set the standard before too long for these kinds of restoration projects, instead of being an outlier.

Fifteen years ago GPS coordinates weren’t required for these kinds of efforts, and today you need two meter accuracy. I wouldn’t be surprised to see drones adopted widely in ecology over the next five to ten years.

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