Utilizing UAS for Data Collection at Remote Sites

Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge

Although previous research has demonstrated the utility of various remote sensing instruments to aid in the understanding of key biophysical properties associated with ecosystem process, climate change, and hydrology of the Palmyra Atoll, data collection efforts are often hindered by both logistical and cost prohibitive factors. For instance, image data collected by tethered balloons and kites on Palmyra can be limited by wind direction, and although high resolution multi-spectral and hyperspectral data are available through satellite or manned aerial flight, they are often cost prohibitive. In an effort to addresses some of these challenges, Palmyra Atoll researchers asked the USGS to evaluate the effectiveness of using on-site small UAS data collection platforms to acquire high resolution images and collect associated data to benefit the science conducted on Palmyra.

UAS data collection applications for Palmyra included collecting video, high resolution natural color, multi-spectral and thermal images. Associated GPS ground locations and ground-truth information was gathered during aerial surveys including areas of emerging land (forest), lagoons, reef, and surf zones. Wildlife species targeted for observation included the many and wide ranging species of birds on the Atoll, turtles, mantas, sharks, coral, and corallimorph. The USGS UAS equipped with still frame and video cameras added the ability to fly slowly over the lagoon or hover over targeted areas of interest with increased manuerverability without being impacted by cloud cover, wind, canopy cover, or other natural aerial data collection obstructions.

The high resolution images and associated data collected on the Palmyra Atoll can be useful to better understand turtle population dynamics and behavior, lagoon flows, bird populations, corallimorph areas, and many other related studies. Near infrared and thermal sensor data, which can be validated with the collected color video imagery, will provide a cost-effective opportunity to research and further develop techniques to measure biophysical and ecosystem properties. The high resolution imagery from the sUAS' also provides unique opportunities to correlate ground measurements which will improve the hydrologic, thermal, and landscape assessments of aquatic wildlife, atoll vegetation, hydrologic changes and bird habitat and behavior. Most importantly however, the proof-of-concept flights allow scientists to realistically examine the use of UAS capabilities on the remote atoll with the goal being to keep aerial data collection platforms permanently on site for immediate and practical use by the visiting scientists.

Bird-nados during 3DR Solo launches and landings.

Overview of Palmyra Atoll from the 3DR Solo.
Points of Contact
Carl Orazio
Physical Scientist
USGS Columbia Environmental Research Center Columbia, MO
Phone: 573-876-1823
Email: corazio@usgs.gov

National UAS Project Office
Phone: 303-236-1308