NACHES, Wash. -- Drones could soon be the newest gadgets in forest conservation.
A group of college students in Washington recently built and tested a drone that will survey the health of the forest. The hope is that drones will speed up restoration efforts and save some money.
“You guys ready for the test flight?” asked Ryan Haugo, a forest ecologist with The Nature Conservancy.
“Yeah, I think so,” said Rheno Prajadipta.
Prajadipta is an engineering student at Yakima Valley Community College. The students, their instructor, and several conservationists stand in a meadow surrounded by ponderosa pines and douglas fir trees, high on the top of a ridge.
After two months of tinkering and testing, it’s time to fly this drone around the Tieton Forest Preserve. Normally they take off in the middle of a soccer field.
Prajadipta, who helped design the drone, said flying it in the middle of a forest is more challenging.
“There are more risks, for sure, but that’s what makes it fun, too,” he said.
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Prajadipta presses a joystick on the remote control. The drone lifts off the table to and flies just above the treetops.
The students are taking their drone to this forest to test it out. They want to see if they can observe the trees and see what types are growing.
They’ll then give the information to The Nature Conservancy to be used to plan for future forest thinning projects.
Haugo said this type of surveying can be used to help make Northwest forests healthier.
“We need to be able to use tools, such as thinning and controlled burning, to restore the health and resilience of our forests. But in order to use these tools at the scale that is needed, we need to be able to take a bird’s eye view of our forests,” Haugo said.
Getting that bird’s eye view directly from an aircraft can be expensive. Typically a plane ride will cost $5,000. This drone cost $1,700, including spare parts.
That’s one reason Prajadipta decided to help build the drone.
"It’s something that’s really new. You can get so much information from counting trees,” he said.
As the drone flies higher, it gets caught in a gust of wind and spirals to the ground.
Austin Philipp grabs a screwdriver and spare plastic propellers. The students have learned to have a few extra supplies on hand.
“Well, it got windier than we expected, but that’s okay,” Philip said as he begins screwing on a spare black propeller to replace the ones that broke in the crash landing.
They’ve pretty much built this drone from scratch.
“Keep it tighter because it didn’t break, so that’s fine,” Prajadipta said, helping with the quick fixes.
After the repairs, they give it a second try. It’s a success. The group watches the video on a laptop.
“You see what’s cool is that the resolution is good enough that you can see that’s a ponderosa pine, that’s a doug fir,” Haugo said.
That kind of information will help The Nature Conservancy plan forest restoration and thinning projects. Haugo sees many possibilities for drones and conservation work.
“We can use this technology to plan restoration projects, to monitor wildlife populations. We’re just scratching the tip of the iceburg here,” he said.
The Federal Aviation Administration is still working out drone regulations. New rules are due out next fall. For now, the conservation group is only testing the drones on its property.
But the ultimate goal, the students said, is to design a drone that doesn’t need to be flown by remote control – with hopes to survey more Northwest forests.