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Drones and cheap cameras can monitor environmental change

"This technique bridges the gap between satellite and on-the-ground methods," said researcher Andrew Cunliffe.

By
Brooks Hays
Researchers used a drone and basic camera to plot vegetation structure among dryland in New Mexico. Photo by Andrew Cunliffe/Exeter
Researchers used a drone and basic camera to plot vegetation structure among dryland in New Mexico. Photo by Andrew Cunliffe/Exeter

EXETER, England, June 7 (UPI) -- Better environmental modeling is just a cheap camera and drone away, according to researchers at the University of Exeter.

Exeter scientists designed new analytical tools for drone-based surveys. The tools are expected to be especially useful for ecologists and land managers who monitor dryland ecosystems.

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Researchers recently tested their monitoring system in New Mexico's Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge. The drone cameras automatically capture aerial photos as they fly. The photos are analyzed for subtle changes in vegetation structure.

The cameras can offer much more fine-grained 3D analysis of the landscape than satellites, and at a much lower cost. They're also more efficient at covering a larger area than a team of field scientists.

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Scientists described the effectiveness of their simple monitoring system in the journal Remote Sensing of Environment.

"We have shown you can use inexpensive equipment to better measure plants and how they change over time and space," lead study author Andrew Cunliffe, a life scientist at Exeter, explained in a news release. "The nature of dryland ecosystems with many small plants means it is difficult to measure the vegetation in these places using previously available monitoring techniques."

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"This technique bridges the gap between satellite and on-the-ground methods," Cunliffe said. "It is a tool to help us further understand climate systems and what changes are happening now, and what could happen in the future."

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Dryland makes up some 40 percent of Earth's surface, and at least 2.4 billion people rely on the natural resources it provides. But it is also one of the ecosystems most vulnerable to climate change.

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