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The Bird Is The UAS Word

It's always fun to speak to someone who's truly excited about unmanned aerial systems (UAS) technology because of their experience using it. Such was the case when I called Donna Withers a wildlife refuge specialist.
By Patrick C. Miller | July 16, 2015

It’s always fun to speak to someone who’s truly excited about unmanned aerial systems (UAS) technology because of their experience using it. Such was the case when I called Donna Withers, a wildlife refuge specialist with the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge Complex in California.

She had recently learned that the way the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has traditionally counted pelicans at the Anaho Island National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada was not just a little off, it was way off. A UAS flown over the island by Mark Bauer, a geospatial analyst with the U.S. Geological Survey, revealed 4,000 more pelicans than Withers’ team on the island had observed.

“In a good year, we used to say we had 8,000 to 10,000 pelicans,” she told UAS Magazine. “Now we know it’s more like 12,000.”

There’s no need to sell Withers on the capabilities and value of UAS in conducting wildlife surveys.

“It was fun. It was cool. It was really amazing,” she exclaimed. “Once Mark starts talking about all the potential and getting a newer, state-of-the-art platform and all the things that are out there that we just don’t have yet, it’s pretty exciting.”

However, as others in the UAS field have learned, there are questions that arise about how to effectively employ the technology and analyze the data it produces.

“It’s cool that I have the imagery and I have the data, but now I need the behind-the-scenes information,” Withers said.

For example, what’s the level of expertise needed to fly and maintain UAS? What’s the best way to handle the data collected? How much time does it take to process the imagery?

“Those are all the other pieces we’re trying to pull together so people understand it,” Withers said. “The technology’s there and anyone can go to Amazon and buy something, but it’s the sensor and what you do with it, knowing how to put it all together.”

Currently, Withers said the National Wildlife Service conducts bird surveys using manned aircraft. Although she’s convinced UAS is the wave of the future, it’s not as easy as simply switching to an unmanned platform.

“There’s a lot involved that people don’t understand at this point,” she noted. “You fly it and have cool pictures, but for us to take that next step of doing something with them, we have to have the staff that are skilled to process the data. And you have to know what your questions are before you even fly it.”

In other words, it’s like learning to crawl, then walk and then run.

“It’s no different than any other project we set up,” Withers explained. “You have to put the time into it so you know that the data you collect is what you need.”