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Science in the sky

Unmanned aerial vehicle with camera gives researchers bird's-eye view to map threatened species


Scientists may soon be spending shorter days out in the field collecting data thanks to a current study being conducted by Central Michigan University researchers.

With a six-foot-long helicopter equipped with a high-resolution digital camera, CMU geography experts are leading the way in advancing research imaging of Great Lakes coastal wetlands.

Benjamin Heumann, director of CMU's Center for Geographic Information Science, and a team of geography graduate students — John Gross from Brighton, Rachel Hackett from Mount Pleasant and Brian Stark from Erie — recently spent the day at Wilderness State Park near Carp Lake flying the aircraft along the Lake Michigan shoreline. The helicopter's onboard camera took thousands of aerial photos that the researchers will use to map all locations of Pitcher's thistle, a threatened native plant that grows on beaches and grassland dunes along the shorelines of Lake Michigan, Lake Superior and Lake Huron.

"Right now, the Environmental Protection Agency spends millions of dollars sending botanists and other scientists out into the field to count species manually, but we don't have a lot of good spatial data," Heumann said. "We're hoping that by using this new technology, coupled with ground sampling efforts, we'll be able to cover larger areas and get a better understanding about the state of the ecosystems around the Great Lakes and how they're changing."

Flown under Federal Aviation Administration guidelines, the helicopter flies at about 10 miles an hour and up to the height of a 40-story building, via remote control guided by a pilot or on its own with a programmed, preplanned flight route.

With research support and funding from CMU and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Heumann and his students will use the collected images to create a spatial demographic mapping of the species.

"For each flight we do, we collect about 1,000 photos," geography graduate student John Gross said. "For this particular trip, we'll probably have more than 2,000 that we'll stitch together on the computer so they become one gigantic photo from which we can then analyze data. We look at colors, shapes and textures using either computer methods or visual interpretation to identify where all the plants are located."

This aerial method of data collection and mapping is new technology within the past five years.

"As a graduate research assistant, I expected to be collecting data, but not by way of a helicopter," Gross said. "It's pretty cool to be a part of this research."

Heumann is excited to be leading such cutting-edge research and hopes this mapping study helps demonstrate that the technology is useful and should become an integral part of coastal wetland monitoring of the Great Lakes.

"We are one of only two universities in the state of Michigan with an active flight program related to remote sensing," he said. "This new technology has tremendous opportunity for research collaboration and impact in several areas, including agriculture, and its potential has yet to be maximized."

Pitcher's thistle, an important food source for certain birds and small mammals, was once fairly common in sand dune ecosystems of Michigan, but its numbers have declined in recent decades due to habitat destruction associated with shoreline development and recreational use and invasive plant species. It was classified as a federally threatened species in 1996 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

CMU is a leader in Great Lakes research, overseeing a $10 million federal grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to conduct Great Lakes wetlands preservation research. CMU allocates funds through this grant to nine other universities and three governmental agencies. With the funds, researchers monitor and protect vital geographic areas, addressing issues threatening the health of the Great Lakes ecosystems.​

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