Small Unoccupied Aircraft System (sUAS) Flights

Science Center Objects

Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) are an emerging technology which may result in safer and improved methods to conduct wildlife surveys. The objective of this task is to test the capabilities of various cameras and sensors onboard a small Unoccupied (or unmanned) Aircraft System (sUAS) to determine if they are a useful and effective tool to inventory various flora and fauna important to USGS partners and collaborators.

In the first application of a sUAS to a natural resource management need, the USGS and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) are compared the video imagery collected on the Raven A sUAS with simultaneously collected data from ground-based counts to estimate the population of Sandhill cranes migrating through Colorado’s San Luis Valley. Cranes are large, upright birds (up to 4 ft tall) that migrate through the refuge in early spring. The birds can be counted while aggregated in this important “staging area” on their migratory route. This initial work determined (1) to what extent vehicle noise affects the birds at various altitudes above ground; (2) whether the birds can be seen well enough to count from different altitudes; (3) how views compare between the two camera types (color and thermal infrared) used on the sUAS; and (4) how closely the sUAS aerial counts align with those conducted by observers on the ground.

A second study conducted by USGS and Colorado Parks and Wildlife tested the ability of a thermal sensor mounted on the Raven sUAS to detect a much smaller bird, the Greater sage-grouse, on their lek. Over the course of these and additional studies, scientists will identify which types of field applications will benefit most from using a sUAS, what species can be detected with the cameras and sensors, and the efficacy of this method for aerial surveying in different environments.

Additional Project Information:

Greater sage-grouse and sUAS flights

Sandhill Crane Population Estimate from sUAS flights