Drones conquer biological research

For centuries, biologists have been known for their good fieldwork competence and persistence in data collection. But new technology has now arrived to weaken the strong constitution of biologists, though fortunately not our persistence.

Drones a.k.a. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (= UAV) have been a hot topic for a while now. Previously talk has mainly concentrated on how drones can be used to deliver mail or pizza, or even used for military purposes. But recently researchers have also begun acknowledging the possibilities that drones offer.

Drones or UAVs are remote-controlled or autopiloted to fly a certain route. © Mia Vehkaoja

Drones or UAVs are remote-controlled or autopiloted to fly a certain route. © Mia Vehkaoja

Drones are, as their more professional name implies, unmanned light aircrafts that usually resemble either planes or helicopters. They are either remote-controlled or can be programmed to automatically fly a predetermined route. UAVs can be used to collect aerial photographs and videos, from which orthophotos and terrain and 3D models can be produced. The National Land Survey of Finland uses laser scanning photos that deliver an accuracy of 50 cm, whereas aerial photographs from drones can provide an accuracy of 1–10 cm. With such accuracies we can almost identify and count individual plant specimens.

An aerial photograph of a beaver wetland taken with a drone. © Antti Nykänen

An aerial photograph of a beaver wetland taken with a drone. © Antti Nykänen

Drone orthophotos make it possible for example to calculate the vegetation and open water cover percentages of a water system, and define the vegetation categories of an area. UAV-produced photos open up new horizons for defining vegetation classes. These classes have previously been categorized pretty roughly e.g. tree stand, bushes and brushwood. But now we can identify vegetation to the family or even genus level.

An orthophoto produced from the aerial photos taken with a drone. © Antti Nykänen

An orthophoto produced from the aerial photos taken with a drone. © Antti Nykänen

UAVs can also be utilized in game animal calculations. For example, they are an easier and faster way to calculate the ducks or geese in a certain area. On the other hand, they also make it possible to observe the nests of raptors from the air, which is considerably safer and faster (no tree-climbing involved) for the researcher, and a stress-free method for the bird. Heat cameras can additionally be attached onto the drone, making it possible to calculate the mammals, such as deer, in dense canopy landscapes. USA and Germany have already used drones to calculate mammal populations. UAVs are best suited for at least hare-sized animals.

Drones are here to stay and their use in research will increase and diversify in the future.  Researchers just need to hold on to their seats and let their imaginations fly.

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