UAS helps Central Michigan University track threatened species

By Emily Aasand | September 24, 2014

Researchers at Central Michigan University are using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to monitor and assess wetland ecosystems around the Great Lakes region.

Benjamin Heumann, director for the Center for Geographic Information Science and lead investigator, is joined by two master students to operate UAS along the Lake Michigan shoreline.

Flown under Federal Aviation Administration guidelines, the team uses a single rotor Avenger helicopter built by Leptron Industrial Robotic Helicopters.

“We’re restricted to areas that are at least five miles away from an airport, and we operate line-of-sight under 400 feet to comply with FAA regulations,” said Heumann. “In the central and southern half of Michigan, there are a lot of recreational and private landing strips so the majority of that area is actually restricted because of the five mile rule.”

One of the teams’ goals is to integrate the collection of data from the UAS into assessment and monitoring protocols for ecosystems in the Great Lakes region.

“The Environmental Protection Agency has a Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a several million dollar initiation, that they have to monitor and restore the Great Lakes so we would like to have this technology integrated into part of that program,” said Heumann.

The self-funded pilot project is still getting off the ground and making sure all the technology works, according to Heumann. “Eventually, we’d like to work with federal, state and government agencies and non-profit organizations to help support us in monitoring efforts and to help support them by providing aerial data they could use to help improve their efforts and activities.”

The university is one of two in the state that have active flying programs related to environmental science, which according to Heumann, brings a unique aspect to the program.

“It attracts students who are particularly interested in that type of technology and it gives us a unique research program to get involved with some larger programs since we offer technology and methods that they currently aren’t using,” said Heumann. “It’s a big boost to our program both in terms of visibility and desirability.”