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WFU SUAS Lab Enables Unprecedented Access to Seabird Colonies

December 10, 2013
Photo credit: WFU SUAS lab

Photo credit: WFU SUAS lab

Another drone is set to take to the skies from the campus of Wake Forest University. Unlike its predecessors, however, this one is not destined for the rainforests of Peru but for the rugged and remote islands of the East Pacific. With funding from CEES, Professor of Biology Dave Anderson and graduate student Felipe Estela have teamed with the WFU Small Unmanned Aerial Systems (SUAS) Lab to design an aircraft and image acquisition system for the monitoring of seabird colonies on the Galapagos Islands and other islands in the East Pacific.

The seabirds they will study, the Nazca booby and the critically endangered waved albatross, are highly important to a number of processes such as nutrient cycling. With albatross and some booby populations threatened by overfishing and poor fishing techniques, continuous monitoring of population sizes is important to preservation efforts.

This monitoring is, however, plagued by difficulties in accessing and observing the colonies. Anderson and Estela sought a system which would allow them to quickly and easily census the seabird colonies and monitor change through time. This work is currently very difficult. Steep cliffs and dense vegetation make some areas and even entire islands inaccessible to researchers. One of these areas was known to have a waved albatross population 40 years ago but researchers have been unable to return since then. The unmanned aircraft will provide a solution by allowing them to overfly the colonies easily and frequently, monitoring their status in real-time. This unprecedented ability to not only observe the islands but observe them repeatedly and provide accurate census data will provide Anderson and Estela with fundamental information about how the colonies function.

By collaborating with the WFU SUAS Lab, an effort of the CEES Sustainability Lab, Anderson and Estela were able to jump past the development phase and rapidly acquire a system that is customized for the work they intend to do. This gives them the upper hand by allowing them to field the aircraft in much less time and, most importantly, collect data critical to their research and preservation efforts sooner.  The system is scheduled to be put in the field in 2014 and begin collecting this valuable data immediately upon arrival.

Contributed by Max Messinger (’13)

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