Drones Offer Big Potential, Small Footprint for Conservation

Environmental Scientists Map Two Projects in South Texas

DroneDeploy's Blog
Published in
6 min readDec 14, 2016


When environmental scientists set out to monitor or study the natural world, their very presence has an impact on the areas they are monitoring. Any human presence, even when the utmost care is taken, can disrupt local plants and wildlife. Drone mapping not only gives environmental scientists a more comprehensive picture of the natural areas they monitor and study, but it also has the potential to reduce the human impact of their work.

Drone Service Provider Justin Moore and environmental scientist Donna Taylor have teamed up to explore the possibilities of using drone mapping in conservation work. Their partnership on two projects in south Texas is proving that drone technology may be a powerful tool in nature conservation.

Justin with Donna and her team in the field

Increasing Public Awareness of Drones

Justin Moore has been a professional photographer for the past seventeen years, spending much of this time capturing images from his late model Cessna 172 Skyhawk SP. After getting a drone as a Christmas present and discovering the low-altitude views it provided, he says, “I was hooked.” In 2016, he launched Airborne Aerial Photography as an arm of his traditional photography company. In addition to providing mapping services to the construction industry, Justin uses his drone to capture images and maps that promote conservation, parks and communities. He regularly donates his time and equipment to increase public awareness of drones and to speak to elementary school children about the positive benefits of their use. It was this volunteer work that led him to his work with environmental scientists.

“One piece of advice I try to give every potential drone operator is that they are ambassadors,” says Justin. “They need to make it part of their business model to do public outreach.”

Although he has, in his words, “a small hanger of drones,” Justin’s go-to mapping drone is his Phantom 4, which he used to fly both of the sites described below. With the help of DroneDeploy, he generated detailed 3D point clouds, which Donna Taylor then uploaded into ArcGIS to create comprehensive, detailed 3D models.

Research Conducted with Drone Maps is Safer, Less Invasive

At a 3700-acre state natural area in south Texas, Donna is conducting research on bigtooth maple trees that grow in a series of remote canyons. This research involves measuring the basal diameter of all the trees, as well as counting all of the seedlings along transects. To do this, she and her team must hike into areas with no established trails, at times taking measurements on steep, slippery slopes. The work is slow, arduous and sometimes dangerous. In addition to concerns about the safety of the scientists, ground monitoring has the potential to cause erosion, disrupt animal behaviors, leave human scents and introduce non-native seeds.

Map of canyon showing bigtooth maple trees.

Before discovering the possibilities of drone mapping, Donna attempted to gather quality images by hiring a photographer to take pictures from a small, manned aircraft. However, because of the speed at which the airplane had to fly in order to avoid stalling, the pictures were too low in resolution to be of much use.

Earlier this year, Donna asked Justin to fly the canyons with his Phantom 4, in the hope that this solution may eventually revolutionize the way she does her research.

“I’m excited about the accessibility [drone mapping] gives us to areas we previously could not access,” says Donna Taylor. “Drone imagery can connect people with natural areas in a way like never before.” [click-to-tweet]

Because it is easily paired with ArcGIS software, DroneDeploy has the potential to allow Donna’s team to create accurate, high-resolution 3D models of environmental sites, which scientists can use to take measurements of individual trees and count small tree saplings. Donna is currently comparing the results of her ground findings to the information she gathered using her drone map. She hopes to eventually replace some of her manual ground work with drone mapping to collect scientific data in a way that is faster, safer and less invasive.

Drone Map Helps Conservationists Monitor Habitats

Justin and Donna also worked together on a 641-acre private nature preserve in south Texas, where Donna is a trustee. Part of a larger, nearly 1,300-acre conservation partnership, the delicate watershed is a habitat for a diverse population of wildlife, including several endangered and threatened species. An impressive 100-million-year-old exposed reef cuts through the property.

Section of nature preserve, including a 110 million-year-old reef from the Cretaceous period

Justin flew the entire preserve with his drone and, as with the canyon project, created a 3D point cloud that Donna uploaded into ArcGIS. The result was a comprehensive, real-time picture of the preserve. Although this project is also in its early stages, Donna is beginning to discover just how useful this map will be in the future. Prior to the use of drones, scientists who monitor the area had to rely on outdated satellite imagery, combined with ground monitoring, to regularly survey the populations of plants and animals, as well as monitor erosion and water issues. The sheer size of the area made it difficult to gain a complete, up-to-date visual picture. Donna intends to use the new maps as a baseline to compare changes to the property over time, such as plant community composition.

Donna is excited to learn all the ways her new maps can assist with monitoring the preserve.

“Compared to other imagery…[drone maps] are just so much more compelling and easy to comprehend for most people.”

Map of entire preserve

An Unexpected Benefit: Scientists Find Great Blue Heron Nests with Drone

After mapping the 600-acre nature preserve, Donna and Justin realized drones could help them in another, unexpected way. On the ancient reef that cuts through the preserve, nestled in the middle of a sea of oaks, sits a single sycamore tree. That tree is home to a Great Blue Heron rookery. Each year, scientists monitor the health of the nests. Because of the tree’s location along the reef, the bird blind that scientists use is inadequate. It is situated slightly below the nests, and the leaves of the sycamore obscure the view of the back side of the tree.

Using his Inspire 1, with a long lens, Justin obtained images from all sides of the nest, while remaining at a safe distance that did not disturb the birds. These images showed five additional nests that scientist had not seen from the bird blind. This was crucial, because some of the previously unobserved nests were at earlier stages of development, containing eggs, chicks and juveniles. The scientists now realized they needed to continue to monitor the rookery for longer than they had previously thought, to make sure those young birds remained healthy.

As Donna and Justin are discovering, drones allow scientists to reach areas that are otherwise inaccessible, doing so in a way that is safe and minimally invasive. When paired with ArcGIS software, maps created in DroneDeploy give scientists a comprehensive, real-time picture that allows them make better and more informed decisions about the habitats they are entrusted with preserving.

Aerial video showing the heron rookery

Where to Learn More

To learn more about using drones to make 3D models, be sure to read 3D modeling expert Jeff Foster’s 4 Steps for Making an Excellent 3D Model with a Drone. Also, be sure to check out some of our other blog posts for tips on making successful maps.

Get Started with Drone Deploy

It’s easy to start mapping with DroneDeploy. Just sign up to create your free account on www.dronedeploy.com and download the mobile app for iOS or Android. Want to learn how DroneDeploy can help your business? Visit www.dronedeploy.com or request a consultation with one of our team members.



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