Technology for Nature

Surveying from the air can help monitor species, identify habitat types and track the effect of our interventions – what could our new drone service at the record centre mean for Northamptonshire?

In the hands of qualified and environmentally aware professionals, drones allow us to view our landscapes in ways we, and the wider field of environmental monitoring, are only just exploring. Viewed from the air we can see the true depth of our habitats and with minimal disturbance gain a better picture of the species living within those spaces.

Two years ago, the Environment Agency granted us funding to purchase a Phantom IV professional drone and to train up two Northamptonshire Records Centre Data Officers as CAA qualified operators. Last year both of our Data Officers successfully passed, in the fully manual and notoriously tricky ATTI mode and have since been out honing their skills. We have recently flown over Bradlaugh Fields at the request of the Wildlife Trust for the Northamptonshire Reserves Team, generating a site scale detailed orthomosaic and generating a 3D model of the site. The aerial view produced allows the reserves team to accurately view large areas of landscape and plan for habitat enhancement over the summer.  The drone makes assessment much safer than for member of the team on foot – it can fly over thick bracken and blackthorn, up steep slopes, through bog and over deep water for close up views. With whole site accurate georeferenced imagery, generated in a short space of time, orthomosaic images can be used to map vegetation type, to accurately measure the depth and coverage of that vegetation and deliver a strong evidence base to plan and prioritise conservation action.

We are now into our second stage of that funding, delivering the high quality aerial imagery and video to support planning and monitoring of their restoration and improvement of key sections of the River Nene. We will be delivering before and after imagery to show the change from completed works in a number of sites along the Nene, including de-silting and digging out of a current backwater to create a backchannel. From land you would only get half the picture, with the drone we can produce orthomosaic (whole site), close up and 3D models safely and efficiently.

The application of this technology is expanding all the time, drone imagery is supporting habitat assessment by ecologists allowing access to trickier terrains and characterising of many habitats according to Phase 1 Habitat Survey classes, supported as necessary with ground-truthing survey. The RSPB are now regularly using this tool, not only in GIS habitat mapping, grazing and conservation planning, but also in species counts. They have cut the cost and improved the accuracy of their coastal bird monitoring replacing boats with drones to produce annual counts of seabirds. As Josh Hellon showed in his aerial survey of heron nesting sites last year (https://www.wildlifebcn.org/blog/mischa-cross/counting-heron-nests-pitsford), low disturbance species monitoring is possible with the height a high-resolution camera allows and appropriate consideration for survey timing.

With the benefits of on-demand, accurate and high-resolution imagery, drone technology is expanding. Biologists, ecologists, conservationists, farmers, geologists and archaeologists are all starting to use this new tool. We look forward to the range of projects we can get involved in across Northamptonshire and encourage interested groups to get in touch (https://www.northantsbrc.org.uk/).