UVM spatial analysis data documenting caterpillar damage

Published: Jul. 23, 2021 at 12:41 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Most folks already know that caterpillars are bad this year, eating the leaves off of trees and causing bare patches in spots that normally would be lush and green. Now, there’s an effort to document that damage from the air thanks to the University of Vermont Spatial Analysis Lab.

Adam Zylka takes his drone into the skies above the UVM campus in Burlington to scout trees, but he’s also testing technology that could change the game in tracking big environmental issues like pest damage.

Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: What’s the difference for you when you see something from the ground versus when you see it from the air?

Adam Zylka: Well, one big thing is access. It’s really hard to go walk 600 acres and figure out what’s happening there, but with the drone, we can map that in maybe 15 to 20 minutes and process that in just a few hours.

Zylka and his team at the UVM Spatial Analysis Lab are using their drones this summer to map the mess left by hungry caterpillars that munched their way through the leaves of trees. Taking snapshots above the treeline in Monkton on June 14, they could already see the damage caused by the bugs. But that was nothing compared to what they saw nine days later, when the leaves in some areas were almost totally gone.

Caterpillar damage Vermont
Caterpillar damage Vermont(Courtesy: UVM Spatial Analysis Lab)

Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: What was your reaction when you saw that?

Adam Zylka: It’s very shocking.

And what the drone’s-eye-view also gave him is a big-picture view that they can use to compare to past data from three years ago. Images from three years ago show hills that are fully forested and green. When he overlays this summer’s data the ground is visible for hundreds of acres.

Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: It almost looks like fall.

Adam Zylka: Yeah, it does.

This is the first year they’ve used their drones in this kind of research. Zylka’s not sure who will use the data they collect. Right now he says it’s more about testing the capabilities of the drones. The lab got them in 2013 to help map the aftermath of natural disasters like Tropical Storm Irene.

They recently used it to document damage from a tornado in Middlebury back at the end of March that damaged homes and took down trees and power lines. They sent the data to the National Weather Service, which had only done a ground analysis.

The drones have also been useful in documenting a landslide off Riverside Avenue, illustrating just how close to homes and businesses the slide was.

Zylka says the difficulty isn’t in flying the drone over an ice jam or other incident, it’s in figuring out how to analyze the data they collect. But he says the possibilities for the future of drone research are exciting.

When it comes to this summer’s pest damage, the next step for this lab is to map how the trees recover now that those very hungry caterpillars have turned into moths. Their drone can use infrared imagery at wavelengths our eyes can’t see to measure chlorophyll levels and get a better sense of how the trees are faring. “You can see really easily from aerial imagery and figure out where that’s happening,” Zylka said.

Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: Was this something we could have done, say, 10 years ago?

Adam Zylka: I don’t think so.


That’s not the only tree-related research Zylka’s teams are doing this summer. On the day we caught up with them at UVM, they were flying above the trees at the Redstone campus as part of an urban forestry project

“We’re trying to see what types of data we can collect with drones to maybe do species detection. So, you can tell an ash from an oak, for example, with this type of drone data. And then urban foresters can apply that kind of technology in their jobs in the future,” Zylka said.

They chose the UVM campus to start because the university has a good log of which trees are on campus and can compare it to the data they get from their drone. They’re also planning on working in parks and other locations because they say the city of Burlington has a great tree inventory also.

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