Recent advances in drone technologies are offering exciting new perspectives for ecology and environmental sciences – for Team Shrub, drone research is an essential part of our work to understand how global change alters plant communities and ecosystem processes. We love hearing about how people from different disciplines are using drones to advance their research, and the visit of our fellow Team Shrub member Jeff Kerby was the perfect occasion to organise an afternoon full of drone science!
Kicking off our drone afternoon was Jeff’s Global Change Seminar talk, titled “Phenology in a changing Arctic: From individuals to landscapes”. Jeff’s talk demonstrated the value of long-term ecological monitoring of both plant phenology and large herbivores. By studying how plant and herbivore communities vary through time, Jeff is offering insight into how changing environmental conditions reflect on how those communities are expressing their phenology across the landscape. As the level of asynchrony between plants and herbivores increases, caribou calf production decreases. For muskox, however, there was a less clear pattern.
It was particularly interesting to think about the trade-offs that occur as a result of the effect of global change drivers on life histories – if plants emerge too early, there are higher chances they will encounter bad weather conditions which may compromise their growth; on the flip side, those early emerging plants will have a longer growing season. Thinking about foraging ecology, opportunistic animals can track “greening signals”, but what is causing greening across the landscape to begin with? Snowmelt, thawing degree days and temperature could all be linked with the changes in plant communities we are observing. An exciting question then becomes whether the greening is propagating at a herbivore-relevant scale.
When trying to disentangle the mechanistic drivers of phenology changes on a biome scale, it becomes a challenge to tie dynamics across time and space – how can we link patterns in satellite observations and on the ground measurements? Does the scale at which we are observing these changes bias our observations? This is where timelapse cameras and drones come (fly) in! “Computer vision” can offer further insight – for example, we can use computer vision to count flowers in drone-acquired imagery.
Building up on Jeff’s great talk, we then found out about a wide range of drone-facilitated research, as part of our Drone Research Workshop. Here at the School of GeoSciences, we benefit from the excellent NERC recognised Airborne GeoSciences facility.
In line with the Arctic-oriented start of our drone afternoon, Isla presented about the ShrubTundra Project, which aims to quantify the role of climate as a driver of tundra shrub expansion and tundra greening. An exciting development for drone researchers is the establishment of the Drone Ecology Network – a network of high-latitude ecologists using drones to answer ecological questions. The network will share methods, techniques and expertise to improve the collection of drone remotely-sensed data in tundra ecosystems and to enhance the comparison of data in future.
Jeff told us about another fantastic initiative – Conservation Drones, which seeks to share knowledge of building and using low-cost unmanned aerial vehicles for conservation-related applications with conservation workers and researchers worldwide, especially those in developing countries.
Simon Gibson-Poole demonstrated a great diversity of drone applications – from monitoring the spread of Giant Hogweed to using drones in agricultural trials and disease management.
Lizzie Dingle‘s talk took us to Nepal where she used drones to map river channels in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains. Lizzie also gave us very useful insight into what some of the challenges of drone fieldwork are, particularly in remote fieldsites.
Paige dePolo used drones in her Master’s research to collect bedding plane scale photogrammetric datasets for dinosaur footprints located on intertidal platforms on the Isle of Skye.
Zhaoliang Hou talked about his plan to test the possibility of UAV mapping in hilled areas.
Next up, Team Shrub’s honours student Arabella gave an excellent presentation about the patterns of tundra greenness and soil moisture. Arabella discussed how she assessed the correspondence between soil moisture distribution and vegetation greenness using drone data with different spatial grain.
Our last talk of the afternoon took us to the Scottish Borders, where Kathryn Murphy used drone imagery and 3D modelling in the study of an overlooked archaeological site.
Visiting our “Arctic from Above” exhibition was an inspirational ending to our drone-filled day – Jeff got to see his exhibited work in person, and we all enjoyed going back to our photos of Arctic fieldsites and wildlife.