UND biologists part of team using UAS for Manitoba research

By Ann Bailey | November 05, 2015

University of North Dakota researchers are finding that using unmanned aerial systems to gather research information on nesting bird populations and wildlife benefits humans and the feathered and furred creatures, alike.

University biology professors Susan Ellis-Felege, Robert Newman and Chris Felege, together with Michael Corcoran, UND unmanned aerial systems specialist and Robert Rockwell, American Museum of Natural History research associate are using a fixed-wing Trimble UX5 UAS to collect data on geese, eider and other birds in the 2.8 million acre Wapusk National Park in northern Manitoba. Meanwhile, Travis Desell, assistant UND computer science professor, is researching ways to more efficiently interpret the data, Ellis-Felege said

The UND team is conducting its survey with the help of the Hudson Bay Project and Parks Canada. Rockwell, who leads the Hudson Bay Project, has studied the park’s ecosystem for 47 years. 

This past summer, UND research team members, including two students, spent two and a half weeks in June and two weeks in July camping at a remote location on the northern tip of Manitoba gathering images. After traveling to Churchill,  Manitoba, team members hiked 4.5 miles through tundra in temperatures hovering around 32 degrees to reach the remote camp.

The team’s is studying whether UAS can be used as a non-invasive tool to collect data on the bird populations and their predators, Ellis-Felege said. The team also is studying the effects the nesting birds have on the park’s vegetation.

It did not appear that the birds paid attention to the UAS, which flew at a height of 250 feet, Felege said, and she believes it was a less invasive way to collect data than using a helicopter. Collecting the data using a UAS also is safer and less costly than using a helicopter, she said. It is safer both because there is less chance of coming in contact with polar bears when the researchers are on the ground and because it negates the need to fly at a low altitude in a helicopter.

“The No. 1 killer of biologists is helicopter crashes,” Ellis-Felege noted.

During a 17-day period, the UAS made 87 flights that lasted a total of 55 hours, Felege said.  The team captured 80,000 images during the flight time. The information on wildlife, bird populations and plants that the team is collecting in Wapusk National Park also will be useful to the energy industry in western North Dakota, she said.

It is important to assemble the right research team when undertaking a project like the one the UND biologists have undertaken, Ellis-Felege said.  The team needs to have a specific purpose for flying the UAS and the pilot must understand what the researchers need.

“If we don’t have good quality data, the product is not adding anything.”

Research team member Desell is researching ways to more efficiently interpret the data, Ellis-Felege said.