In a remote portion of Manitoba, Canada, a research team led by the University of North Dakota and the American Museum of Natural History spent the summer deploying the latest tool in a nearly five-decade-old ecological study: unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).
As part of the Hudson Bay Project, a collaborative research program that includes partners from the U.S. and Canada, the group conducted nearly 90 test flights from Wapusk National Park to learn whether UAS can be used to non-invasively study the overabundant geese in the region and their impact on the tundra landscape.
Their work suggests that in addition to being effective and efficient – the single unmanned aircraft used by the team generated more than 80,000 detailed images during just two months – UAS studies are also safer than foot surveys that put researchers at a risk of encounters with bears.
“This technology has propelled us well into the 21st century,” says Robert Rockwell, a research associate in the museum’s department of ornithology and a senior scientist of the Hudson Bay Project. “The first year’s operations were a grand success by any measure, and I look forward to expanding our efforts in 2016 and beyond.”
The team is the first to be given permits to develop UAS technology in a national park in Canada. The new tool grants researchers the freedom to monitor the ecosystem from the air and greatly extends their range of monitoring activity – providing the kind of view and access previously afforded only by helicopters, but with much less noise and expense.
The researchers’ UAS vehicle of choice is a 5.5-pound Styrofoam flyer that launches via catapult and is programmed to follow transects while taking photos at one-second intervals. The imagery is then stitched together to form a picture of the ground below.
From about 250 feet up, the aircraft’s belly camera clearly captures snow geese (blue and white varieties) and their goslings, different types of vegetation and damaged areas, and other bird species such as sandhill cranes, tundra swans, bald eagles and herring gulls.
To gauge how the local wildlife responds as the aircraft flies nearby, the researchers placed video cameras near goose and eider duck nests. They found that the animals generally ignored the aircraft, even when in close proximity to the launch sites.
That is important to not only the nature of the work, but also to the park managers and the indigenous people who have a “don’t touch and don’t disturb” philosophy, explains Rockwell. “Using UAS allows us to respect those wishes and cultural considerations.”
Before starting the study, the team underwent extensive training to receive a Special Flight Operations Certificate. The flights are conducted through the approval of both Parks Canada and Transport Canada.
However, the technology does have limitations: The vehicle must be in sight at all times during flight, so helicopters are still necessary to transport people and equipment to areas of interest that are far away from the electric-fence-protected camp.
But based on initial tests, the researchers expect that UAS will be extremely beneficial in learning more about nesting and nest failure in the region – an increasingly important topic as the changing Arctic climate is causing bears to consume alternative food sources such as geese and their eggs.