Using Unmanned Aircraft to Help Map Threatened Plant Species

Caitlin Dempsey


There has been a lot of news lately about where unmanned aerial systems (UAS or UAV for unmanned aerial vehicle) can’t fly in the United States.  Despite the negative attention, unmanned aircraft have many beneficial uses, for example, in the remote sensing of archaeological sites.

How researchers are using drones to map threatened plant species

Geography researchers at Central Michigan University have been testing out the usability of UAVs in mapping out threatened plant species.  The research team is made up of Benjamin Heumann, director of CMU’s Center for Geographic Information Science, and a group of graduate students: John Gross, Rachel Hackett, and Brian Stark.

The group uses an unmanned aircraft to capture imagery of the Great Lakes coastal wetlands at Wilderness State Park near Carp Lake. The drone flies at a speed of ten MPH and fly at an altitude under the 400′ ceiling mandated by the FAA.  Each flight captures around a thousand images and unlike traditional aerial images which tends to offer either natural color (red, green, and blue) or four bands (red, green, blue, and infrared), the camera onboard the drone takes extremely high-resolution images in 334 colors.

Benjamin Heumann and the UAV. Photo: Heumann, Central Michigan Press Release.
Benjamin Heumann and the UAV. Photo: Heumann, Central Michigan Press Release.

The images captured are then stitched together to form one large composite image which will then be used to map all locations of Pitcher’s thistle, a threatened native plant that grows on beaches and grassland dunes along the shorelines of Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, and Lake Huron.  

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The decline of due to habitation destruction from development and recreational use along with the adverse effects of invasive plant species resulted in the plant being classified as a federally threatened species in 1996 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Imagery analysis for this effort will use a combination of remote sensing methods and visual interpretation of colors, shapes and textures in order to identify where all the plants are located.

Pitcher's Thistle
Pitcher’s Thistle. Photo: Heumann, Central Michigan Press Release.

Drones can speed up the mapping of plant locations

Heumann and his group hope to show that using this remote method of mapping out the locations of Pitcher’s thistle will be a faster and less expensive method of monitoring endangered plants. “Right now, the Environmental Protection Agency spends millions of dollars sending botanists and other scientists out into the field to count species manually, but we don’t have a lot of good spatial data,” Heumann said. “We’re hoping that by using this new technology, coupled with ground sampling efforts, we’ll be able to cover larger areas and get a better understanding about the state of the ecosystems around the Great Lakes and how they’re changing.”  Research support and funding for this project comes in part from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


Science in the sky: Unmanned aerial vehicle with camera gives researchers bird’s-eye view to map threatened species

Central Michigan University’s Center for Geographic Information Science

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.