These are my wings: Leveraging UAV remote sensing for environmental research

Growing up watching the Jetson’s (re-runs of course, because my grandparents were not even done high school by the time the series was finished its original run) I thought we would be whizzing around the skies in our own personal flying cars by the time I was old enough to drive.


This is a guest blog post by our coop student Chris McAulay


Growing up in the 90’s, I wore out our VHS copy of Top Gun; I wanted a cool nickname, I wanted to go fast, I wanted to be a fighter pilot. Life had a different plan for me though, and by the time I was a teenager I had grown to a lofty stature that would require me to be a contortionist in order to squeeze into the confines of a fighter jet cockpit. Then the day eventually came when I walked out of an ICBC office with my passport to freedom in hand, a driver’s license. My first car, a white 1988 Volkswagen Mk2 Golf Cabriolet, dubbed “Goose”, might not have hit supersonic speeds, but with the top down I could almost imagine I was in my own personal Jetson’s-esque spaceship. Slowly my dreams floated back to earth, where I pursued my passion for nature, receiving a BSc in biology at university.  

The technology of the 21st century may not have lived up to the science fiction of generations past, but has changed the methods we use for conducting research and collecting data. Data forms the base of the scientific hierarchy, it is the foundation of information that we translate into knowledge and wisdom. In the past, data was hard to come by, requiring time and dedication of skilled field workers to venture out of the safety of their laboratories into the wild expanses of the great outdoors, sometimes hundreds of kilometers from the nearest human settlement and in harsh dangerous conditions. A picture is worth a thousand words; with the development of remote sensing technologies, which allow us to collect data on a subject without being in physical contact with it, the level of risk and amount of effort required to collect data has slowly diminished. Manned aircraft and orbital satellites equipped with remote sensors are capable of collecting high resolution data over vast areas exponentially faster than what is capable from the ground. These aerial platforms have opened up new avenues of research, expedited the collection process, and reduced the manpower required for collection. Nevertheless, the exorbitant costs of placing and keeping one of these platforms in the atmosphere has driven innovation and development of more cost effective methods that do not financially impede their utilization by less wealthy institutions.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones, recently federally re-designated Remotely Piloted Aircrafts (surely a paramount victory in the feminist campaign for the sterilization of modern popular language into a politically correct lexicon), RPAs are small to medium sized aircraft (250g to 25kg) that are capable of carrying out aerial missions with remote sensors. Because of the relatively inexpensive cost upfront to acquire a drone, and the low operational costs (batteries are cheaper than petrol, and a RPA Basic license is cheaper than hiring an airplane or helicopter pilot), current drone technologies are being utilized in research and industry at an increasing rate, and demand for improvement is driving new innovations in drone technology.

During my time as a GIS co-op with the SGRC, I got my first experience using drones to carry out research. Wolverines (the animals, not the Marvel characters) are a conservation priority provincially and nationally. Wolverines exist on the landscape in very low densities over vast home ranges, and their presence is negatively associated with human disturbances. In addition, their low reproductive rates make the regulation of human activity in maternal denning habitat a key factor to ensuring the continued existence of wild populations in BC. This introverted nature has made the study of wolverine ecology using traditional data collection methods extremely difficult, if not impossible, and so we know very little about what constitutes ideal denning habitat. This is where drones come in. Using a drone for this research project allowed us to capture aerial imagery of potential denning habitat without disturbing any sensitive wildlife, for a fraction of the cost of hiring an airplane, with the ability to safely fly lower than an airplane, and in complex terrain.

Even still, we were not without challenges. A drone must strike a delicate balance, it must produce sufficient lift to carry a range of different sensors, and have battery capacity to have a sufficiently long flight time. But a bigger battery weighs more, and so requires more power to lift, reducing payload capacity and maximum flight time. The drones that we used are capable of about 15 to 20 minutes of flight time while carrying a multispectral sensor, and so in order to cover the full area we intended to fly we had to carry additional batteries.
Under most circumstances where the study site is accessed by road, carrying extra batteries, along with the other accessories required to operate, would not be an issue. But we were studying wolverines, during winter (which is maternal denning season) in the Kootenays; road access to where we were going does not exist. And so, we loaded up our bags with safety equipment for travelling in avalanche terrain, as well as all the extra batteries, memory cards, spare parts, and a bulky hard-shell case for the drone. Then strapped on our boots and skis to tour into the cold snowy wilderness in search of signs of the largest land-dwelling species of Mustelidae, wolverine. Travelling on snow has its advantages, but this was still no easy task. We crossed mountains, penetrated deep into wild valleys, and then climbed up high to set up launch sites on shoulders in order to have a visual line of sight into multiple corries. By placing our launch site on the shoulders between corries, we were able to fly multiple sites from the same launch site while maintaining visual line of sight, increasing our efficiency. Once we had captured our aerial data for the study locations, we began the arduous trek back. Mentally and physically exhausted from the tedious day in the field, I straight-lined my descent down the last pitch back to the trucks grinning ear to ear with excitement and fulfillment from the days endeavor. 

This experience in the field spurred me on to pursue a RPAs license so that I can fly drones for my own projects, rather than act as an observer (the equivalent to a co-pilot in a manned aircraft). As of June 1st, 2019, Transport Canada introduced new regulations for the operation of RPAs in Canada. In addition to requiring the registration of drones prior to flight, the new regulations include different tiers of operations which require different tiers of licencing. For anyone interested in learning more about these new regulations, and how to obtain the legal requirements for operating drones, all information can be found on the Transport Canada website. This month I achieved my childhood dream of becoming a pilot, earning my Basic Operations Pilot certification. Although they aren’t as fast as an F-14, I look forward to flying drones for meaningful environmental research with the SGRC for the remainder of my co-op term. 

- Chris “10K” McAulay


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