Sky is the limit for using drones in land management

Adam Downing, Virginia Cooperative Extension forestry agent for the Northern District, is pictured with the eBee at Clermont Farm in Clarke County. Clermont will install a silvopasture demonstration and research project in collaboration with Virginia Tech. The eBee was used to establish detailed baseline land-cover data and historical resources.

Adam Downing, Virginia Cooperative Extension forestry agent for the Northern District, is pictured with the eBee at Clermont Farm in Clarke County. Clermont will install a silvopasture demonstration and research project in collaboration with Virginia Tech. The eBee was used to establish detailed baseline land-cover data and historical resources.

Virginia Tech has another tool in its arsenal for managing land resources that can be used to do everything from inventorying forests and identifying land-use changes to assessing soil erosion and water runoff on agriculture lands.

What is this powerful tool? A 1.5-pound unmanned aircraft, or drone.

“Our drone, a fixed-wing eBee, carried two different sensors — true color and infrared — that gathered land-use and land-cover data to support inventory mapping,” said John McGee, professor and Virginia Cooperative Extension geospatial specialist in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.

The eBee’s sensors capture data that will enable researchers to measure vegetative vigor — places in which chlorophyll activity differs drastically across the terrain. If the ground vegetation is stressed in a confined area, it might indicate that a structure, perhaps a foundation, is buried underground.

This drone is not just a small airplane; it is a complete and sophisticated system, composed of flight-planning software, a camera, sensor technology, and post-processing data software. The eBee flies under the direction of a licensed pilot, operating on parameters provided through the flight-planning software prior to launching. It continually assesses wind speed, wind direction, and other data. The pilot can also monitor environmental conditions and modify the flight plan and the imagery being captured while the plane is in flight.

Forestry applications for the unmanned aircraft include inventorying forests, identifying changes in urban forests, and monitoring forest health. Agriculture applications include assessing soil erosion, water runoff, and crop health. Facilities planners can analyze pedestrian traffic and lighting needs, plan for emergencies, and use thermal sensors to monitor energy use. The aircraft can also be used to conduct wildlife inventories.

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