Geography prof uses drones to hunt mountain pine beetles in Alberta forests

drones hunting mountain pine beetles

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[Editor’s Note: Once a pine tree has been attacked by pine beetles, it can can take up to a year before the tree shows signs.]

Tracking the spread of the mountain pine beetle has been one of the great challenges facing the forestry industry.

Currently, the task requires sending teams of forestry officers into the last known areas where trees were attacked, and then spreading out in concentric circles to find where the beetles went next. This must be done once the beetles are dormant in winter.

Geography professor Greg McDermid in the Faculty of Arts believes this task can be achieved through remote sensing using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more popularly known as drones.

“It’s an exciting time in remote sensing right now. Using UAVs we can do things at a much broader scale and cheaper than ever before,” says McDermid. “We can capture images at orders of magnitude beyond anything we’ve been able to do before.”

Funded in part by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) research grant announced on June 24, McDermid is working with the province to see if drones can be used to track the movement of mountain pine beetles through forests.

Drones equipped with infrared cameras can capture tree’s heat signatures

When pine beetles attack a tree, it takes up to a year before the pine tree will show telltale outward signs that it is dead such as pine needles turning brown and falling off. This is why forestry officers have to go out and visually confirm which trees have been attacked by the beetles.

However, “green attacked trees” are dead and as such, retain a lot more heat from the sun than living trees full of moisture. McDermid’s theory is that a UAV with an infrared camera attached should be able to capture the heat signatures of those trees that have been attacked without having to send teams of people out to find them.

“The traditional methods of remote sensing — satellites and piloted aircraft — would not be effective here as they’re too high up to get the heat images of individual trees,” says McDermid. “But with UAVs, we can fly right over the trees and capture these images. And we don’t have to pay for a pilot and aircraft or pay for images from a satellite.”

Team’s other projects involve UAVs for forestry and ecological purposes

So far, McDermid and his graduate students have been taking heat images of trees the province has already identified as being attacked by pine beetles.

“We still have to prove that we can accurately single out green attacked trees on our own,” says McDermid. “I’m optimistic this will work but there’s still a lot of work to do to prove it can be done accurately and consistently.”

McDermid has a team of five graduate students working on research projects funded by NSERC that involve UAVs for forestry and ecological work.

Another project involves establishing what the habitat requirements are for the ferruginous hawk which is classified as an at-risk species.

McDermid was one of 118 UCalgary researchers and students to receive federal government funding for fundamental research in the latest round of NSERC funding. Read more: University of Calgary awarded $14.7 million in NSERC support 

The pressures of our rapidly growing global population are driving unprecedented changes in our social, political, cultural and natural systems. The University of Calgary’s Human Dynamics in a Changing World research strategy is addressing our need to understand how we adapt to rapid change, to ensure our security and quality of life.


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