For almost a decade, scientist Todd Dawson has studied the giant sequoia trees of California's Whitaker Forest, scaling these towering behemoths as part of an effort to monitor the health of the ecosystem. But as the region suffers through a record-breaking drought, Dawson and his team are now getting some much needed help, by way of sensor-equipped drones that create 3D models of the trees in a short space of time.
California is in the midst of a six-year drought, the consequences of which include water shortages, threats to agriculture and native habitats, and the death of around 60 million trees. Dawson, a canopy ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and his team are seriously concerned by how the conditions might impact the giant sequoia trees of southern California's Sierra Nevada mountains, some of which are hundreds of years old.
Until now, ecologists like Dawson would manually survey the trees by rigging up ropes and harnesses and climbing them one by one. Not only is this dangerous, it can take days or weeks to tick off a single tree. But with the help of drones, they are now able to gather a whole lot more information in a much shorter space of time.
Dawson has teamed up with Parrot and drone-mapping software company Pix4D for the project, which aims to better understand the architecture of the forest, how it responds to climate change, and its ability to sequester carbon. The drones are loaded up with Parrot's Sequoia, a multispectral sensor that records images in four different spectral bands and uses software to convert them into 3D models.
After a single drone flight, this approach can provide the scientists with information that they would never get with the naked eye, such as how much light is being absorbed by the trees and how much is being reflected. And because the drones can be made to fly identical routes, they can track the health of trees by orbiting them along the same flight path, day by day.
"Tackling a huge and critically important issue like climate change requires research that leads to solutions," says Dawson. "Drones, with their new on-board sensor packages, are powerful new tools that will allow us to look very closely at single trees but then really pull back and look at how an entire forest is responding too, in both time and over space."
You can learn more about the project in the video below.