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Minnesota district improves forest management with drone surveillance

The Aitkin County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) is taking to the sky to improve forest management in Minnesota.

Due to interest from Forestry Technician Kyle Fredrickson and other SWCD staff, the conservation district recently purchased a drone and began using it to view shoreline properties, buffers and areas where landowners have reported problems in an effort to gain a broader view of concerns and build solutions.

“We can see project areas from a whole new perspective,” Fredrickson said. “Satellite and pictometry help, but nothing is like being on the ground and seeing the area from a higher perspective. The benefit is in crossing areas quickly and capturing images that we can bring back to the office if we need to analyze the area further.”

Shoreline, buffers and wetlands can be difficult areas to access, he said. The drone can fly by, take pictures and video to gather data and provide information on ordinance compliance, as well as identify wetland issues and infestations of noxious weeds and other pests.

One landowner concerned about bark beetles killing the pines on his steep shoreline property had Fredrickson come in and walk the land. Fredrickson was able to find some trees that were infested, but using the drone, he was able to get a better idea of how large an area was affected and the likely path the beetles would take. Those visuals will allow the conservation district to better create and implement a management plan to control the infestation without losing too much canopy and adding erosion risks.

In December, the SWCD sent the drone up to begin shoreline inventory, an effort that eventually will provide the district with information to analyze changes over time, which in turn may help identify key problem areas and assist with identifying and establishing future projects’ order.

“It’s still in the development process,” Fredrickson said. “When it was purchased, the goal was to increase our efficiencies and enhance our product delivery to the public. Translation: Get more done, faster, better, cheaper. New uses for the drone are continually evolving.”

This first year has been one of learning, he said, seeing what the drone can do, where it can go, how the district can use it. There are some challenges: staff using the drone in these capacities must have training and be Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certified; the drone can be difficult to control in close proximity to the trees, because the drone sensors see the trees as an obstacle to avoid; battery life; using the drone is weather dependent; and eagles will attack the drone, if given a chance.

The conservation district plans to utilize the drone in more instances in the coming year, Fredrickson said, including the area of photogrammetry, which would create a 3D model of the study area and provide accurate changes in elevation and vegetation height.

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