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UI Researchers and Moscow Consulting Firm Work Together on NASA Drone Project

July 28, 2017

A researcher in the University of Idaho’s College of Natural Resources (CNR) has been awarded $25,000 in grant funding from the NASA Idaho Space Grant Consortium for a project that will use an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) – also called a drone – to gather data to assess forests and streams from the sky.

The data also will be used to develop curriculum on UAV technology for Lapwai High School students, with the goals of increasing interest and participation in STEM activities.

The UAV uses lidar (light detection and ranging) technology, which uses pulses of laser light to measure distance. The measurements are then used to create an extremely accurate topographic image. Lidar also has the ability to determine amounts and kinds of vegetation present and efficiently create large pictures that can be used to assess the health of forests, rangelands and streams. Industry partner Alta Science and Engineering, Inc. (Alta) is an environmental and civil engineering consulting firm headquartered in Moscow. They utilize UAV’s primarily for the purpose of land surveying.

“The unique dataset that we will collect using the drone will give us very high-resolution, three-dimensional data of the vegetation structure,” said Arjan Meddens, a postdoctoral researcher in CNR and the project’s lead investigator. “We can then work with our industry partner Alta to analyze the data and determine processes for future environmental monitoring.”

Alta’s Principal Restoration Engineer Susan Firor and her team will provide the UAV and flight services for the project.

“We are honored and excited to partner with CNR on this project,” Firor said. “We want to help discover what this technology can do in the advancement of natural resource sciences, and we’re hopeful the results of this small project will lead to a variety of research possibilities and commercial applications.”

The data gathered from the UAV will be used three ways:
  1. To determine the amount and type of potential fuel for wildland fires near homes with the potential to assess effectiveness of future fuel treatments (i.e. brush removal, controlled burns);
  2. To analyze forest structural qualities such as the number of trees and growth of trees and plants; and
  3. To create baseline information on stream habitat that can be used to monitor restoration progress.
Meddens said follow-up flights will determine how treatments affect fuel loads in the forest, as well as check in on the progress of vegetation re-growth in areas of stream restoration. In the past, this kind of data would have been collected on the ground in a time-intensive and expensive process. Using a UAV allows for efficient collection of a large amount of data points in a very short time frame.

Media Contact:

Kim Jackson
Marketing and Communications Manager, College of Natural Resources

About the University of Idaho

The University of Idaho, home of the Vandals, is Idaho’s land-grant, national research university. From its residential campus in Moscow, U of I serves the state of Idaho through educational centers in Boise, Coeur d’Alene and Idaho Falls, a research and Extension center in Twin Falls, plus Extension offices in 42 counties. Home to more than 11,000 students statewide, U of I is a leader in student-centered learning and excels at interdisciplinary research, service to businesses and communities, and in advancing diversity, citizenship and global outreach. U of I competes in the Big Sky Conference and Sun Belt Conference. Learn more: