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Highly Capable Small Unmanned Aircraft are Enhancing the Capacity of Lake Managers to Monitor, Assess, and Manage Michigan’s Inland Lakes

By October 25, 2021News

by Scott Brown, MWA / McNALMS Board Member &
FAA Certified Unmanned Aircraft Systems Remote Pilot

Unmanned aircraft systems, commonly referred to as drones, are rapidly changing the way we perceive our world, and perform a multitude of complex tasks. The capacity to deploy drones is proving to be particularly beneficial in places that are difficult for man to reach, in natural habitats that are highly vulnerable to disruption or damage by the presence of humans, or in circumstances where people might otherwise be incapable of performing necessary tasks in a timely, efficient, or affordable manner. Moreover, the use of remotely controlled small aircraft allows for expeditious assessment of hazardous situations, and the capacity to gather real-time data in dangerous environments without placing humans at risk. Industry observers believe that the nearly unlimited potential for state-of-the-art technology enabled unmanned aircraft to contribute to safely and reliably accomplishing an increasingly diverse array of human endeavors is only in its infancy. Enabled by a constellation of twenty-four global positioning system (GPS) satellites, and leap frog advances in aviation technology, computer science, information technology, wireless communications, digital imaging, battery technology, and the development of high-resolution remote sensors, small unmanned aerial systems are dramatically changing the way a host of professionals are conducting business.

In contrast to the large, extraordinarily expensive to operate fixed wing drones that have been in use by the military for almost two decades, the vast majority of the drones in use today are lightweight hover craft that are capable of being launched and retrieved almost anywhere due to their small size and their ability to take-off and land vertically. Ranging in price from $500.00 to $2,000, consumer grade unmanned aircraft are capable of capturing high resolution still photographs and videos that are useful for generating geo-referenced natural color mosaics and digital surface models. Capable of collecting scientific research quality data, commercial grade drones that range in price from $5,000 to $50,000 are equipped with advanced, application specific remote sensing equipment. Relatively easy to operate commercial and consumer grade unmanned aerial vehicles currently being deployed by scientists, engineers, and natural resource managers on an increasingly frequent basis are nominally equipped with global positioning system (GPS) enabled navigation systems, high resolution video and still photography cameras, and wireless digital communications systems that allow their operators to view and record real-time images and data from altitudes of up to 23,000 feet, and from distances of up to several miles. Inland lake management professionals operating in North America are just now beginning to recognize the tremendous potential for the small remote-controlled aircraft to enhance their overall capacity to effectively monitor, assess, and manage aquatic ecosystems. The use of highly maneuverable hovercraft that are authorized by the Federal Aviation Agency to operate anywhere in uncontrolled airspace to a maximum altitude of four hundred feet provide lake managers with a versatile and cost-effective tool with which to obtain high-resolution images, and precise data regarding the nature and status of inland lake ecosystems.

One of the most important benefits derived from the use of small unmanned aircraft is their ability to provide lake managers with a crystal-clear bird’s eye view of the lake, and its surrounding area. Unlike the coarse images derived from earth observation satellites, the spatial resolution of the photographs and videos provided by high-resolution camera equipped drones operating at relatively low altitudes ranges from sub-meter to the centimeter level. Detailed visual images that are viewed in real-time, and simultaneously recorded for future reference are extremely useful for accurately monitoring and assessing the characteristics and ecological status of inland lake ecosystems, and their surrounding sub-watershed areas. Finely detailed color images captured and transmitted by hovercraft allow lake managers, for instance, to readily identify potential point, and non-point nutrient laden runoff sources that may be having an adverse impact on the lake’s aquatic ecosystem. Lake managers are also capable of easily maneuvering their hovercraft in order to view and record close-up images of areas of special interest such as natural shorelines, vegetative buffer zones, wetlands, or a nearby creek. Lake managers and aquatic biologists working on behalf of the home owner’s association of northwest Lower Michigan’s Big and Little Glen Lakes, for example, recently deployed drones to survey and record high resolution video of the entire shoreline of each of the lakes that will serve to establish an accurate baseline reference with which to compare and measure future changes to the shoreline.  Lake managers working to help preserve and protect the high quality of Big and Little Glen Lakes also intend to deploy drones in order to survey and map green belts, drainage pipes, sea walls, critical fish habitat, shoreline erosion, and invasive plants.

The ability to safely operate the versatile lightweight aircraft at low altitude vantage points also allows lake managers to assess the composition, abundance, and coverage area of the lake’s emergent and floating leaf aquatic plant communities, or to visually scan nearby shorelines and wetlands in order to detect, and/or assess the abundance of invasive plants such as exotic phragmites, or purple loosestrife. Lake managers operating their high-resolution camera equipped drones just a few feet above the surface of lakes with good water clarity are also capable of accurately assessing the abundance and coverage area of submerged exotic aquatic invasive plants such as Eurasian watermilfoil and starry stonewort. Drone technology enhances the capacity of lake and aquatic plant managers to plan and implement aquatic plant management activities by increasing the number of surveys they are able to conduct in a single season as well as by greatly improving the accuracy and reliability of the data they are capable of capturing during aquatic plant surveys.

Lake and water resource managers throughout North America are also deploying drones in order to enhance their capacity to detect, monitor, assess, and attempt to minimize the harmful effects that are often associated with harmful algal blooms. Capable of producing powerful toxins that pose a significant health threat to animals and people, creating dead zones in lakes, ponds, and reservoirs, and of greatly increasing the cost of treating drinking water, harmful algal blooms in the form of red tide, blue-green algae, and cyanobacteria are occurring on a more frequent basis throughout the United States and Canada. The use of satellite derived images and high-resolution images captured by drones have been particularly useful in the development of predictive models that have been used, for example, to forecast the spatial coverage and depth of the cyanobacteria and blue-green algae blooms that have frequently occurred in the nutrient rich waters of western Lake Erie in recent years.

Lake managers are also capable of deploying small commercial grade unmanned aircraft that are equipped with advanced remote sensing technology that is capable of accurately measuring trophic state dependent concentrations of chlorophyll, dissolved oxygen, and total suspended solids present in the water column. Remote sensing capable drones are also being deployed by water resource managers on an increasingly frequent basis to measure surface water temperature, electrical conductivity, and the amount of organic nutrients present in the water. The use of drones equipped with state-of-the-art remote sensing capability promises to greatly enhance the capacity of scientists and managers to develop and implement sound water resources management strategies.

Lake managers utilizing state-of-the-art drones to enhance the accuracy and efficiency of their efforts are also capable of creating precise, geo-referenced ortho-mosaic maps of inland lakes and their surrounding watershed areas by using advanced analytical software to stitch together the high-resolution images that are captured during comprehensive aerial surveys. In contrast to aerial surveys conducted by manned aircraft that are time consuming and extraordinarily expensive, the use of drones to capture high-resolution images of large areas in a cost effective and expeditious manner has helped make high quality aerial maps much more affordable, and readily available. In addition to significantly contributing to the capacity of lake managers to monitor, assess, and manage aquatic ecosystems, high resolution natural color maps also enhance their ability to effectively communicate with lakefront home owners, and other lake users in regards to the importance of preserving wetlands, natural shorelines, and of controlling aquatic invasive plants.

It is important to note that lake or water resource managers contemplating the use of drones to support their operations should be advised that in addition to the requirement to register both consumer and commercial grade small unmanned aircraft weighing at least .55 pounds, and not more than 55 pounds with the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA), those intending to operate small unmanned aerial systems as part of their job or commercial business will also need to earn their FAA Remote Pilot Certificate under the auspices of 14 CFR Part 107 Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems.