Drones can help monitor forest restoration

Unmanned aerial vehicles could make monitoring restoration projects cheaper and easier.

Drones can help monitor forest restoration. Here a hexacopter flies over a restoration site. A red digital camera is visible between the landing bars.

By Leighton Reid, postdoctoral fellow, Missouri Botanical Garden Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development.

Monitoring restoration projects is important to demonstrate progress and learn what works and what doesn’t, but it can be time consuming and expensive. As such, restoration practitioners around the world are looking to automate tasks like monitoring, and one way this can be done is with unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones.

Over the past two years I’ve worked with a research team in southern Costa Rica to test how well drones can monitor tropical forest restoration. We used hexacopter drones: helicopter-like contraptions with six rotors. Each drone had a consumer-grade digital camera attached to the bottom. We flew the drones over thirteen restoration sites and then used Ecosynth computer software to stitch the images together and create three-dimensional models of the vegetation structure.

The result? Drones accurately estimated forest structure.  Drone-based measurements of canopy height closely matched our hard-won field measurements (with less sweat and insect bites). And the drone-based system accurately detected canopy gaps, predicted fruit-eating bird movements, and estimated above ground biomass. The ability to accurately assess above ground biomass is particularly important, as this suggests that drones could even be used to monitor carbon accumulation in regenerating forests.

Our research on drones and forest restoration was published this week in the journal Biological Conservation and selected as a must-read choice of the month. “The rapidly expanding use of unmanned vehicles to monitor vegetation and other aspects of biodiversity is an exciting development in conservation biology," wrote the editors. "This article also demonstrates that bird abundance can be estimated using data gathered by UAVs.”

Our paper is freely available for download through August 27, 2015 at the publisher’s website.

This post originally appeared here, at the natural history notebook of the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Visit IUCN's science and practice of landscape restoration blog series for more stories like this one.

Work area: 
Global Policy
Protected Areas
Protected Areas
World Heritage
Forest Landscape Restoration
Locally Controlled Forests
South America
North America
East and Southern Africa
West and Central Africa
West Asia
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