A labor saving way to monitor vast rangelands

September 27, 2011

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists have found that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), a tool used by the military, may be suitable for keeping an eye on changing land-use patterns across vast tracts of western rangeland.

Ranchers, government agencies and private land managers often need to survey vast, remote rangelands to see how they are being altered by floods, or other events. Ground-based surveys can be costly and time-consuming. Satellite imagery is improving, but satellites can't provide the resolution needed by the (BLM) for its assessments of millions of acres of federally owned lands, or by private land owners who want to monitor erosion control, the creep of invasive species, or other land-use changes. UAVs allow operators to survey large areas whenever they want, such as immediately after a major rain storm or forest fire.

At the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Jornada Experimental Range in Las Cruces, N.M., Al Rango, Jeff Herrick and Craig Winters, along with Andrea Laliberte, a New Mexico State University researcher, are studying the potential effectiveness of a 20-pound UAV with a 6-foot wingspan that cruises 700 feet above the earth, collecting digital images.

ARS is USDA's principal intramural scientific research agency, and this work supports the USDA priority of improving agricultural sustainability.

UAVs are primarily being studied for their potential to collect enough information about landscape patterns to determine which areas merit closer ground level surveys, according to Laliberte.

In a study partially funded by BLM, the researchers took more than 400 aerial images of 700 acres in the Reynolds Creek Experimental Watershed in southwestern Idaho. They assembled the images into mosaics, determined the percentage of vegetation cover using image-processing techniques and compared the data to information collected with conventional ground-based techniques. In a second study, they analyzed the classification accuracy of different types of vegetation, such as mesquite and yucca plants, identified by a computer program designed to analyze mosaics assembled from hundreds of images taken during flights over tracts in Idaho and New Mexico.

Findings from the first study were published in Photogrammetric Engineering and Remote Sensing, and those from the second study were published in Geocarto International. In both studies, the researchers found the aerial data sufficiently accurate to be comparable to information gathered in ground-based surveys for shrubs, grasses and other plants that can be distinguished by their top canopy layer.

Current federal safety requirements and associated costs limit use of UAVs, but the restrictions may change in the future. This research is designed to ensure strengths and weaknesses of the technology are sufficiently understood regardless of the regulations.

Explore further: Gorillas in the midst of extinction

More information: Read more about this research in the September 2011 issue of Agricultural Research magazine. www.ars.usda.gov/is/AR/archive/sep11/land0911.htm

Related Stories

Gorillas in the midst of extinction

January 8, 2005

Satellites provide a bird's eye view of planet Earth, and the space-based vantage can be extremely useful to people interested in viewing out-of-the-way places. Conservationists, for example, must monitor far-flung areas ...

Aerial Imagery System Helps Save Water

September 15, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists are developing a system that saves water by using aerial imagery and ground-based sensors to determine the irrigation needs of small sections of cultivated fields.

Digital cameras open new view of America's West

September 6, 2011

A U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) aerial photography survey of 38,000 wildfire-burned acres in Idaho provided what is believed to be the first evidence that the invasive leafy spurge weed is displacing seedlings of ...

Recommended for you

How wind sculpted Earth's largest dust deposit

September 1, 2015

China's Loess Plateau was formed by wind alternately depositing dust or removing dust over the last 2.6 million years, according to a new report from University of Arizona geoscientists.

Climate ups odds of 'grey swan' superstorms

August 31, 2015

Climate change will boost the odds up to 14-fold for extremely rare, hard-to-predict tropical cyclones for parts of Australia, the United States and Dubai by 2100, researchers said Monday.

3 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

daggoth
5 / 5 (1) Sep 27, 2011
So we have millions of unemployed and we're looking for "job savers"...the hell?
Jeddy_Mctedder
not rated yet Sep 27, 2011
the age of the drones has commeth.
SteveL
not rated yet Sep 27, 2011
I own some of that range land. While I have no plans to do anything illegal with my retirement land, I really don't care for the thought of big brother monitoring my land use. The reason I bought the land and plan to retire there is so that I won't have to deal with people poking their noses into my business.

Still, I suppose they will get a kick out of seeing trees growing where none have grown for hundreds if not thousands of years.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.