Applying Space Age Technology…to Conservation Management?

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Applied Ecological Services Fights Colonization of Invasive Plant Species Using Mapping Capabilities of Multi-Spectral Aerial Imagery.

We have all heard about the high tech aerial photography capability the U.S. military has had for years. Aerial photographs and live maps of buildings being bombed in Iraq or various images defining underground bunker locations have been in our national newspapers for a few years now. These are war-time tools used every day.

Those involved in conservation and land management have long wished for the ability to have access to similar technologies. But, it’s taken decades to finally have access to comparable technology, minus the bombs.

Now, with the use of a very high-resolution, multi-spectral imaging camera, ecologists at firms such as Applied Ecological Services (AES) are able to map invasive plant species with great precision in many contexts.

Agencies and other land owners haven’t had adequate time or money to truly understand the threat of invasive species and most of the management they are able to do to combat the deterioration of their lands from these species has been focused on the worst locations. These locations may be important to address early in any management investment, but unless how and where the plants invade and spread is addressed, the problem doesn’t easily go away.

Now, this imaging tool can help landowners determine where to focus and how to address the spigot, the locations and process for entry by the plants onto property.

Steven Apfelbaum, Founder, Chairman and Senior Ecologist of AES, says, “This is a truly amazing new tool that is so very useful to us ecologists.”

AES has purchased one of the first defense-grade cameras now operating in the U.S. The technology is now being used for ecological investigations, planning and many other applications. AES uses the camera to do monitoring of ecological restoration, crop condition and drought impacts and failure, water quality affected by erosion and sedimentation in waterways, erosion control effectiveness associated with developments, and many other ecological areas.

The camera was intentionally installed on one of AES’ airplanes that can be flown low and slow over the land, unlike most airplanes with other larger format aerial cameras that must fly high and fast. Low and slow photography delivers the extremely high resolution needed to detect and identify many plants species, as well as insect outbreaks and diseases such as those occurring in Emerald Ash borer-infected ash trees.

Detecting ecological problems is an important application of this technology, according to Geographic Information Specialist, Jason Carlson, at AES. Carlson oversees its many uses and is amazed at the daily innovations being discovered in the use of this imagery. “In addition to low and slow, the plane can fly below cloud layers, and we can get the photographs the day the invasive plant blooms, or is in fruit,” Carlson commented.

The “just-in-time” aspect of the technology allows AES to shoot the photographs with the phenology of the plants, or pest organisms’ appearance, rather than having to wait a few weeks until the weather cooperated, as was previously the case for higher and faster planes.

Aerial imagery is the ultimate blend of science and technology, and it will revolutionize future land management and conservation planning techniques.

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Alison Hunt