Partnership forms to answer question: Can drones help gather accurate data on forests?

March 18, 2016


The Freshwater Trust has partnered with Portland State University’s Sustainable Water, Energy and Environmental Technologies Laboratory (SWEETLab) and Oregon State University (AIS Lab) to test how unmanned vehicle systems (UAS), commonly known as drones, can help monitor the health and growth of streamside forests.

A team of engineering professors and graduate students will spend several days in March flying UASs over a river restoration site in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, collecting data on forest density and species height.

The results of the data collection will demonstrate if UAS technology can be used to help The Freshwater Trust cost-effectively and accurately monitor river restoration projects, and also help further develop the SWEETLab’s monitoring techniques for an ongoing land-use project in Rwanda. The Freshwater Trust employs teams of scientists to count trees and monitor its work restoring vegetation to riverbanks.

“We plant thousands of trees along Oregon rivers every year,” said Monique Leslie, habitat restoration project manager for The Freshwater Trust. “We typically monitor these projects over 20 year periods, which can take a lot of field time and effort. Long-term monitoring is essential to assess the effectiveness of our projects, and we are very interested in figuring out how technology can help us streamline our work and allow us to maintain high quality data.”

The Portland State SWEETLab works with academic, industry and nonprofit partners around the world to develop and implement technologies for the support of life in remote environments. The Oregon State AIS Lab conducts UAS flights for a variety of applications including agriculture, engineering, fish and wildlife and forestry.

Thousands of miles from the Pacific Northwest, the laboratory is investigating ways to monitor how forests in Rwanda change in response to nearby villages receiving high efficiency cook stoves. While counting the number of trees used for fuel is traditionally both time-consuming and costly, the laboratory has begun experimenting with using UASs to complete surveys with greater efficiency.

“In Rwanda, Portland State is in a partnership to reduce wood fuel use in households through providing high efficiency cookstoves,” said Professor Evan Thomas, of Portland State University. “If we are successful, we may be able to turn parts of Rwanda from a sink into a source for trees. Counting trees manually is time consuming. With these UAV technologies, we can fly across the country and measure tree density. This challenge is nearly the same as The Freshwater Trust’s data needs here in Oregon.”

One technology is a small quadcopter equipped with a GoPro that takes digital photographs at a high frequency, which can be complied to create a 3D map ready for analysis of the forest density. The second is a larger helicopter that uses LiDAR, a remote sensing method used to examine and model the surface of the Earth. The information collected with these unmanned aerial vehicles will be compared to each other and the data collected on the ground and analyzed for their accuracy.

“We’ve developed one of the first operational UAS LiDAR systems in the U.S.,” said Professor Michael Wing, director of the OSU AIS Lab. “LiDAR allows us to take extremely accurate measurements of landscape features that we can use to better manage natural resources.”

In the spring of 2015, crews finished planting more than 6,000 native trees and shrubs along Cedar Creek, a side channel to the McKenzie River in the Willamette Valley. The Metropolitan Wastewater Management Commission, the wastewater utility for Oregon’s Eugene-Springfield communities, hired The Freshwater Trust and its subcontractors to restore forests along the banks of the waterway to produce shade and cool the temperature of the river. This restoration action improves habitat for native fish and showcases how a natural infrastructure solution can be used to help utilities meet temperature requirements under the Clean Water Act.

“We are trying to bring conservation into the 21st century,” said Leslie. “By using the most technology available to us today, we have the opportunity to make restoration more efficient, something that’s needed if we want a future with clean, healthy rivers. This project will allow us to understand if drones can collect the detailed data we’re interested in with the accuracy we need. It’s critical we ensure the plants we’re putting in the ground are meeting the quality standards necessary to assure positive outcomes for the river.”

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