CASE STUDY: Drones and Plant Ecological Research

New review explores how to speed up and scale up plant research with aerial robotics

SUMMARY: Long-term, broad-scale ecological data are critical to plant research, but often impossible to collect on foot. Traditional data-collection methods can be time consuming or dangerous, and can compromise habitats that are sensitive to human impact. Micro-unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, eliminate these data-collection pitfalls by flying over landscapes to gather unobtrusive aerial image data.

PROBLEM: Traditional mapping of large natural plant habitats is a process that typically takes several hundred hours and detrimentally impacts the natural environment. Light detection and ranging (LiDAR) can be used to a certain extent, but fails to capture more subtle differences in vegetation elevations.

SOLUTION: To test the effectiveness of drones, Mitch Cruzan, lead author of the review and professor in the Department of Biology at Portland State University, and colleagues applied drone technology to a landscape genetics study of the Whetstone Savanna Preserve in southern Oregon. They flew drones over vernal pools, which are threatened, seasonal wetlands. They analyzed the drone images to identify how landscape features mediate gene flow and plant dispersal in these patchy habitats. The results were extremely impressive.

"This technology," says Cruzan, "has the potential for the acquisition of large amounts of information with minimal effort and disruption of natural habitats."

For some research questions, drone surveys could be the holy grail of ecological data. Drone-captured images can map individual species in the landscape depending on the uniqueness of the spectral light values created from plant leaf or flower colors. Drones can also be paired with 3D technology to measure plant height and size. Scientists can use these images to study plant health, phenology, and reproduction, to track disease, and to survey human-mediated habitat disturbances.

SOURCE: Botanical Society of America. (2016, October 31). Drones take off in plant ecological research: New review explores how to speed up and scale up plant research with aerial robotics. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 6, 2016 from

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