Botany by Drone Takes Off at Shaw Nature Reserve

Picture in your mind a researcher in the field conducting a tree survey. Likely you imaged a trained botanist deep in a forest or jungle, swatting away insects and wiping sweat out of their eyes while keying out an unknown specimen with a hand lens, clipboard, taxonomic field guide, and a rucksack of supplies at the ready.

The Missouri Botanical Garden has staff doing just that in woodlands, forests and jungles from Tennessee to Kyrgyzstan to Madagascar. But what you might not have pictured was a drone-botanist of sorts, an unmanned, state-of-the-art, high-flying and technologically advanced digital expert identifying trees while soaring over a woodland canopy.

Though it sounds far-fetched and futuristic, the future is now with research currently underway at Shaw Nature Reserve.

Scientists from St. Louis University are partnering with Aerial Insights, a St. Louis based surveying and mapping consultant, to survey the entire tree population at the Nature Reserve. Using drones, they will collect remotely-sensed 3D and hyperspectral data to classify vegetation types and measure physical properties such as height, volume and crown area of each tree.

The researchers hope to hone their technology with “machine-learning classification algorithms for the automatic detection and classification of vegetative species” or, in laymen’s terms, to turn their sophisticated drones into efficient and effective botanists that use extremely precise measurements to rapidly and accurately identify trees from the air.

This collaborative effort is highly beneficial for both parties. For the research team, the woodlands of the Nature Reserve will be a proving ground for this rapidly evolving technology, especially with Garden staff having the expertise to verify the resulting identifications of the high-flying botanists. Their machine-learning and algorithms will be improved and refined, better enabling this technology to play a role in tree sampling at the Nature Reserve and across the region. And Shaw Nature Reserve stands to gain in many ways as well, perhaps most notably in our efforts to control invasive species.

A grove of oak trees at Shaw Nature Reserve. Photo by Tom Incrocci.

Of the 2,842 species of plants in Missouri, 885 are considered exotic with less than two percent being invasive. It is this small fraction of species that we work to detect and control at the Nature Reserve. There is great potential for these drone surveys to identify newly emerging plant invaders or to discover small populations of existing invaders that, due to their small size or location, might have gone otherwise unnoticed.

Early detection and rapid response is key to successful invasive species control. With enhanced detection capabilities provided by these exciting new technologies, invasive trees like autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima), and Amur corkbark tree (Phellodendron amurense) will be more effectively controlled and their spread stopped.

Learn more about invasive species control at Shaw Nature Reserve


Mike Saxton – Ecological Restoration Specialist, Shaw Nature Reserve

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