UVM researchers make key use of drones

RICHMOND, Vt. (WCAX) A buzz in the skies over the Richmond green this week turned out to be the University of Vermont Spacial Analysis Lab's drone team out practicing.

The lab has been using drones since 2011 and has found them an easy way to stretch a research budget. "Drones offer a very cost effective way to collect data. They're a lot cheaper say than hiring a manned chopper to collect data or information," said the lab's Emma Estabrook, showing off the drone they use for mapping projects.

It has a point-and-shoot camera on the bottom capable of taking hundreds, even thousands of photos. "You can really get a lot of information over a short amount of time," Estabrook said.

Computer software turns them into a composite image that researchers can use. Estabrook says drones won't completely replace field work, but they can help hone in on which areas need to be looked at closer so that researchers like Scott Hamshaw can cover more ground for less money.

"We can go out after a flood event and survey a section of river for under $1,000," said Hamshaw, whose work the past three years has focused on soil erosion. He says the aerial images give them a different perspective. "When we see the whole river corridor from above, we can see little areas of erosion that we might have missed while we were walking around on the ground or trying to interpret from satellite data that isn't as detailed."

Their three-year study flew 50 miles of the Winooski, New Haven, and Mad Rivers. But because they saved money by not having to hire planes, they're still monitoring one particularly active site on the New Haven River. He says managing erosion will help keep unnecessary silt and nutrients from ending up in the lake. "We kind of exacerbate the erosion in our rivers and streams. What we can do with the drone data is monitor that over time," he said.

Now his research will turn to floodplains, and they'll use drones to help survey those too. On their end, the UVM Spacial Analysis lab is also using drones to help combat invasive species. They'll take to the skies to map out areas of water chestnuts so people know where to go to get rid of them.