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)

Researchers developed standardized drone protocol for tidal monitoring, filling the gap between ground-based measurements and satellite observations to improve wetland monitoring programs. 

The project

Tidal wetland monitoring is critical for managing vulnerable coastal ecosystems. Monitoring programs typically combine small scale, ground-based measurements with large scale, satellite observations, though this approach misses important processes at intermediate scales or from discrete events such as storms. Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), known as drones, offer opportunities to radically improve monitoring programs by providing high spatial resolution, coverage, and customization. While many reserves have experimented with drones, the lack of standardized protocol posed a barrier to implementing on a broader scale. This project developed the first regional, drone-based tidal wetland monitoring protocol for the reserve system to complement existing long-term biotic monitoring and habitat mapping. 

This catalyst project brought together the six National Estuarine Research Reserves in the Southeast and Caribbean to develop and refine protocols for drone operation, data management, and data analysis. Using ground-based validation, the project assessed the efficacy of drone-collected imagery for estimating common parameters (such as percent cover), delineating boundaries and ecotones between habitats, generating digital elevation models at intermediate scales, and estimating vegetation biomass. This project advanced the adoption of drone-based monitoring across the reserve system by addressing barriers to implementation, developing actionable next steps, and proactively sharing findings with reserves and their partners.

The impact

  • To meet the need of monitoring program staff for large-scale data archiving, sharing, and reproducibility, the team created standardized operational protocol and methodology for data collection and analysis (Link)
  • The team piloted and incorporated drone-based operations into routine monitoring at Southeast and Caribbean reserves and created image processing and analysis protocols from their work.
  • The technical capacity of all team members, including reserve staff, to conduct UAS-based wetland monitoring was enhanced through the development, implementation, and collaborative refinement of the image acquisition, processing, and analysis protocols. 
  • The protocol document will serve as a resource for continued enhancement of technical capacity for additional staff at the NERRs on the project team, to NERRs beyond those on the project, and for scientists and managers outside of the NERRS (anticipated). 
  • The first-of-its-kind regional research collaboration among the six reserves in the Southeast and Caribbean regions has led to additional coordination and participation in another Science Collaborative funded project (Storm Stories) as well as the development of key regional management needs for the NERRS Science Collaborative RFP.