Drones have a measure of infamy because of their military use - but an AUT senior lecturer and her postgraduate students are leading the world in drone-based environmental research.
Barbara Breen, a senior lecturer in environmental sciences, and her students have developed a system of imaging by drones which is revolutionising ecological research.
Drones, known for their military roles, have also gained popularity in leisure use in recent years. Breen's ground-breaking research has used them in a new capacity - taking high-resolution pictures of Auckland's wetlands in a partnership with Auckland Council.
The drones, armed with expensive cameras, are chronicling in minute detail the ecological health of wetlands, starting with Whatipu, at the entrance to Manukau Harbour, and Bethells Beach.
"We can map vegetation and species in specific ecologies," she says, "so we can monitor, for example, weed intrusion by invasive species in the wetlands or pest intrusion by things like possums or rats.
"What we are doing is brand new - New Zealand is leading the way globally in drone research.
We have been working with a company in Switzerland, developing 3-D mosaics of the landscapes we have been filming; we can create whole landscape maps that show incredible detail like the percentage of species that are in that landscape."
Countries like the US have restrictive policies regarding the use of drones, primarily for obvious reasons like terrorism. However, New Zealand's Civil Aviation Authority had existing rules for model aircraft which have been used to include drones.
"It means you can't fly over 400 feet up, and you can't fly them out of line of sight - things like that. So we fly within those regulations and it works really well with our drones and what we are doing."
What they're doing is a joint project with the council which sponsors a contestable scholarship for this kind of research with AUT postgraduates and staff.
"The council are interested to use this for things like pampas grass. It is a really invasive species and they have a big eradication programme working against it.
They want to know whether it is working or whether they need to employ new strategies.
"The thing about the drone research is really the software that we have developed with the people in Switzerland. It allows us to show that kind of detail...it's really exciting."
It's also cost-efficient. Mapping the wetlands - the project is mapping Whatipu as a highly dynamic wetland with a lot of weather and wind influences and Bethells as a more stable wetland environment - would be prohibitive if using aircraft or satellite technology. The drones give much higher resolution shots than satellite imaging.
It's worked so well that AUT now own a small stable of drones - usually the helicopter-style drone often used recreationally. They cost about $1500 although they are armed with cameras far more expensive than that for the wetlands monitoring.
Breen jokes that the drones came into being at AUT because she didn't like flying in small planes to do the research ("It's really scary," she says) but the drones have really established themselves as a key research tool.
She is undertaking the project with postgraduate student Grant Lawrence, a Bachelor of Science graduate interested in wetland ecology, analysing images and the reflective qualities of plants - the science of how different species of plants reflect light and which has application in horticulture and agriculture in New Zealand.
The drones are different from the military-style versions which look like small aircraft and fly autonomously, controlled by an auto-pilot which is in turn controlled by a remote computer operator.
"I got started with drones by using one recreationally; it was great fun but I could also see how we could use them for research.
We use the helicopter style because they are more robust and cheaper.
"This application [of the drones] has been great but, really, the sky is the limit with them."
* This story is part of a content partnership with AUT
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