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University of Nebraska Project Will Use Drones to Survey Wetland Habitats

Thursday, October 13, 2016  
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Nebraska researchers are turning to the air to help monitor wetland habitat conditions.

Funded through a $203,220 Environmental Protection Agency award, the University of Nebraska–Lincoln's Zhenghong Tang and Wayne Woldt plan to develop a methodology to use unmanned aircraft systems to conduct dynamic monitoring and precise assessments of playa wetland habitats. Areas the team plans to focus on include hydrological conditions, vegetation and energy levels, and wildlife usage in the Nebraska Rainwater Basin.

Surveying the public waterfowl production and wildlife management areas across the basin will require multiple field trips to complete the data collection during the spring and fall migratory seasons.

During the drone flights, the team will use multispectral sensors for detection of soil moisture levels and mapping of wetland inundation during spring migration season; thermal imaging cameras and oblique photogrammetry for evaluation of wildlife use and its distribution on playa wetlands; and 3D imagery for surveys of plant community conditions, estimations of energy availability and assessments of vegetation management effectiveness.

The use of UAS is a huge improvement over the traditional large, plane or ground surveying methods commonly used. This method will provide improved imaging with greater resolution and detail in a cost-efficient, timely and flexible manner. The new surveying tools and applicable protocols will offer wetland managers a greater understanding of wetland spring inundation conditions. If this method proves effective, the methodology can be replicated elsewhere. Having this information for wildlife managers will advance conservation efforts.

“Conducting timely monitoring and accurate assessment is extremely important for wetland managers to implement appropriate conservation programs to increase the quantity and quality of wetlands,” said Jeff Drahota, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist with the Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District. “This Unmanned Aircraft System provides an advanced new tool to conduct more rapid, precise monitoring and assessment for playa wetlands.”

In the past, environmental disruptions such as reduction in water flow because of upstream diversions, sediment, invasive species and poor water quality have contributed to major losses in playa habitat. By keeping a closer eye on the situation, wildlife managers will be able to identify threats before they negatively influence the wetlands or reach a point that will be very costly and time intensive to restore. With successful adoption of the proposed methodologies, this project has the potential to transform reactive wildlife management to a proactive and efficient system.
The data analyzed during the assessment stage will help close the information gap and help wildlife managers implement proven restoration practices, choose more effective treatments and create a better understanding of this delicate ecosystem throughout its annual cycle.

“It is important to test and verify the innovative UAS methodology in wetland monitoring and assessment,” Tang said. “This project is a great first step to an exciting new way to conserve our wetlands.”

Tang is an associate professor of community and regional planning in the College of Architecture. Woldt is an associate professor of biological systems engineering. Tang and Woldt are co-principal investigators on the research project.


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