Earth Notes: Drones in the Woods

Drones for monitoring forest snow cover

[Editor’s Note: The data captured by drones can give researchers insight into snow depth, timber harvest yield or carbon storage in a forest.]

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Last year, researchers at Northern Arizona University’s School of Informatics, Computing and Cyber Systems used thousands of images taken from satellites and airplanes to compare snow cover in forests that received restoration treatments to those that didn’t. That study, located west of Flagstaff, found that thinning of ponderosa pine resulted in more snow cover that stuck around longer than on sites that weren’t treated. Thus, more snow was able to soak into soils and groundwater.

This year, professor Teki Sankey and graduate student Jonathon Donald are employing an eight-legged drone, called an octocopter, to expand on these earlier findings.

The drone carries a Light Detection and Ranging scanner that measures precise distances with a laser beam that bounces off objects. The LIDAR data produce three-dimensional images that can help reveal snow depth, timber harvest yield, or carbon storage in a forest. Snowpack and soil moisture can help predict seasonal drought.

The octocopter also holds a sensor that records hundreds of wavelengths of reflected sunlight, letting researchers identify various plant species on the ground, and discern water content in snow and soils.

Use of a drone offers a potentially inexpensive and quicker way to gauge the effectiveness of forest treatments on ecological and watershed health.


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