Bridging the Gap between Quadrats and Satellites: Assessing Utility of Drone-based Imagery to Enhance Emergent Vegetation Biomonitoring

  • This project is advancing the use of drones to improve wetland monitoring. (Photo credit: Charlie Deaton)

    This project is advancing the use of drones to improve wetland monitoring. (Photo credit: Charlie Deaton)

  • Sensors mounted on drones can provide information that fills important gaps in typical field or satellite-based monitoring programs. (Photo credit: Erik Smith)

    Sensors mounted on drones can provide information that fills important gaps in typical field or satellite-based monitoring programs. (Photo credit: Erik Smith)

  • Ground surveys along discrete transects and plots can miss features that drone-based surveys could document, such as marsh die-offs. (Photo credit: Michael Greene)

    Ground surveys along discrete transects and plots can miss features that drone-based surveys could document, such as marsh die-offs. (Photo credit: Michael Greene)

  • Drone-based monitoring can be gentler on a marsh. This image illustrates how ground surveys along permanent transects can inadvertently leave scars.

    Drone-based monitoring can be gentler on a marsh. This image illustrates how ground surveys along permanent transects can inadvertently leave scars.

  • Satellites often provide insufficient resolution to detect species composition right panel); whereas drones can provide cm-scale resolution (left panel). (Figure from report by Bickford and Spurrier, 2016)

    Satellites often provide insufficient resolution to detect species composition right panel); whereas drones can provide cm-scale resolution (left panel). (Figure from report by Bickford and Spurrier, 2016)

  • Many NERRs have been experimenting with the use of drones but lack a standardized protocol. (Photo credit: Brandon Puckett)

    Many NERRs have been experimenting with the use of drones but lack a standardized protocol. (Photo credit: Brandon Puckett)

Tidal wetland monitoring is critical for detecting changes and managing vulnerable coastal ecosystems. Monitoring programs typically combine ground-based measurements and satellite observations to track changes at small and large scales. Yet this approach misses important processes occurring at an intermediate spatial scale or resulting from discrete events such as extreme storms. Additional monitoring techniques that provide a fuller picture across spatial and temporal scales are key to better understanding the drivers of change in tidal wetlands. Fortunately, Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) - commonly known as drones - offer an extraordinary opportunity to radically improve tidal wetland monitoring programs. Drone-mounted sensors can provide high spatial resolution, coverage, and customization, and can be operated at user-defined times. This project will develop the first regionally-coordinated drone-based tidal wetlands monitoring protocol for the reserve system to complement existing long-term biotic monitoring and habitat mapping toolkits. 

This project team will work with the six National Estuarine Research Reserves in the Southeast and Caribbean to develop, assess, and collaboratively refine a protocol for drone operation, data management, and data analysis. To meet the need for large-scale data archiving, sharing, and reproducibility, the team will create a standardized methodology for data collection, then pilot drone-based monitoring at Southeast and Caribbean reserves. Using ground-based validation, the project will assess the efficacy of new drone-collected imagery for estimating common tidal wetland monitoring parameters (such as percent cover), delineating boundaries and ecotones between habitat types, generating digital elevation models at intermediate spatial scales, and estimating vegetation biomass. This 18-month project will advance the adoption of drone-based tidal wetland monitoring across the Reserve System by addressing barriers to implementation, developing an actionable strategy for next steps, and proactively sharing findings with reserves and their partners.

Project References

Project Poster, NERRS Annual Meeting, Nov 2020