Researchers to use unmanned aircraft to survey wildlife habitat

There will be a different kind of bird in the skies over Lemhi County later this month.

A combined group of Idaho and out-of-state ecology researchers will launch unmanned robotic aircraft to take high-resolution digital images of sagebrush habitats. The aerial surveillance is part of an expansive study on Pygmy rabbits.

“When we take ground measurements it’s over a small area … but we are interested in scaling up what we learn about individual plants and animals to a large scale that is useful for land management and management of wildlife populations overall,” University of Idaho ecology professor Janet Rachlow said.

UI is working with Boise State University, Washington State University and the University of Florida on the project.

“The end goal is to understand what makes a good habitat for these animals,” Rachlow said. “We have to have a better understanding of what is a good habitat if we are to help restore it after a wildfire or incursions of foreign plants.”

Researchers will measure the the amount of food in the sagebrush, how animals react to temperature and deal with predators. The research team will be in Lemhi County for two weeks, with key flight days from Sunday to June 23.

The UI research is part of a larger collaboration to create a Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aerial Systems in Idaho at the Center for Advanced Energy Studies in Idaho Falls. The goal of the incoming center is to help create a framework for integrating unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace.

A previous effort to start a similar site in cooperation with the Federal Aviation Administration failed to gain traction last year. The latest efforts are wholly state and privately funded, without financial support from federal agencies.

ADAVSO is an unmanned air systems consulting company working with Idaho researchers to establish the center.

“We want to represent all the (unmanned air) research that is done for Idaho — water, agriculture, wildlife, ranching, reservoirs and more,” company CEO Steve Edgar said in a news release. “The center would be a one-stop-shop for all things UAS related, certificates of authorization, processing the required FAA documents needed to legally fly UAS, research coordination, security and more.”