Community & Regional Planning

Development of an innovative use of drones to monitor wetlands is the thrust of a three-year research project, funded by a $203,220 research grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and directed by Principal Investigator Dr. Zhenghong Tang, Associate Professor of Community and Regional Planning.

This project, entitled “Innovative Technology (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle [UAV]) for Environmental Monitoring and Assessment,” is focusing on the design and development of methods for the use of drones, with optical and other specialized measuring devices attached, to record the condition of subject wetlands at the times of the drone flights. The equipment on the drones will include a multispectral sensor to detect soil moisture and map wetland inundation dynamics, a thermal imaging camera and photogrammetry technology to evaluate wildlife use and distribution on the wetlands, and a 3-D imaging system to survey plant community conditions and estimate energetic availability and vegetation management effectiveness.

The periodic use of drones equipped with this sophisticated technology can thereby measure and record changes in the wetlands over time. The development of this method—using UAVs—is expected to significantly reduce the cost and time needed to periodically monitor the condition of wetlands—a task that has conventionally required boots-on-the-ground observation and measurement and/or the use of manned aircraft.

The importance of monitoring wetlands relates to the need to manage and plan for the protection of this vital component of the earth’s ecosystem. Dr. Tang’s field testing of the use of drones for wetlands monitoring is being conducted in playa wetlands areas of the Rainwater Basin of south-central Nebraska, the part of Nebraska that experiences the phenomenal seasonal migration of waterfowl, most notably the Sandhill Cranes, each spring and fall.

This past week Dr. Tang, accompanied by his UNL research partners, along with representatives from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, took advantage of spring-like weather to conduct a test run of a drone over wetlands in the state’s Straight Water Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in Seward County, one of the many WMAs in Nebraska managed by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

- Gordon Scholz