Wildlife Exploration Using Aerial Thermal Imaging

Observing and documenting wildlife and foliage throughout enormous national parks is nearly impossible without harming the sensitive landscape and ecosystems. With the help of well-equipped unmanned aircraft systems, National Park Services can start to comprehend and document vast ecosystems while staying clear of fragile terrain and avoiding contributing to the erosion of the environment. Wildlife trends such as feeding movements, virus development and population growth throughout a park can be analyzed from frequent aerial surveys. By monitoring wildlife habits over the course of several years, resource managers in any one park can make better management decisions with good scientific data. Examples such as the decision to avoid touring areas that are becoming worn down by foot traffic.

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Managers can make these types of decisions with ample scientific data provided by unmanned aircraft. Drones or Unmanned aerial systems with infrared technology further aid in identifying trends of nature throughout these areas. Infrared signatures from multiple groups of mammals or plant life are simply identified against the static landscape and specific heat trends can give scholars a better understanding of potential diseases affecting species of plants or animals, as well as other threats in the park. This process is swift and painless while not harming or spooking the natural landscape. With this style of remote sensing, researchers and observers can finally understand wildlife without aiding in the erosion of the environment and be causing undue stress to the animals.

National Park Service’s all around the United States are looking for new ways to better understand the wildlife that roams the many acres of terrain under their supervision. Rough landscape and large distances from civilization pose a problem when surveying animals and their ecosystems throughout the park.  Fear of disturbing the delicate environment by ways of heavy machinery for road construction leaves this problem unsolved.  Currently, there is no quick way to observe or obtain information of the park unless by horseback or by foot on the natural ecosystem. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) (2016), the United States Air Space Map states that “general aviation aircraft are allowed to fly between 1,000 and 5,000 feet above ground level, depending on the national park, over the park to capture photographs or continue en route flight”.  For example, Rocky Mountain National Park near Estes Park, CO has a 2,000-foot minimum restriction above the highest point of the park and a recommended one-mile separation from the peak of the mountain. This information can be found on the local visual flight rules sectional map or through online resources.

Many national parks do not allow the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) within the park, as many users are inexperienced and could lose sight or signal from the aircraft inside the boundaries of the park.  This old restriction allows for future professional camera drones development within national parks without having to change rules all around the country and it could possibly aid in the argument to allow such types of aerial operations.

There are many advantages to creating a UAS specifically designed to collect data on wildlife and the environment.  The system could be a relatively quiet unit, which will not disturb wildlife or potentially pollute fragile parts of the ecosystem.  With the help of remote sensing, the data will be collected from a safe distance so the wildlife will not notice the aerial object. Data that is collected can quickly and easily be broken down for analysis during critical times, such as extremely contagious viruses or migration periods.  Currently, government and state methods involve the use of many human assets and large instruments to measure the ecosystem.  Thousands of acres of Rocky Mountain National Park have been untouched, as it is near impossible to navigate the rough landscape.

Unmanned Aircraft System Specifications

The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) platform that will be utilized for this operation is the DJI S900 Spreading Wings. DJI states that the vehicle is a lightweight and highly portable six-motored helicopter, which has an endurance of just under 20 minutes with a maximum payload.  The Spreading Wings platform is paired with many other components to create the Works well WIRIS system package. Included in this system are the standard batteries and controllers, but a unique Works well WIRIS thermal imaging best gopro camera with gimbal is incorporated.  Sensor control is maintained by the user from the transmitter as the display is transmitted to a seven-inch display attached to the user’s controller.

During the flight, one operator controls the sensor while the other controls the aircraft’s movements. Though both operators see the same image from the sensor, the pilot controls all movements of flight.  The Works well WIRIS UAS currently does not have any autonomous controls, except for Fail-safe, only those controlled by the pilot in command (PIC) and the sensor operator.  Fail-safe is a backup system for the system if the connection to the transmitter is lost.  This backup system will route the aircraft home to land and prevent damage.  All the data that the on board sensors collect go directly to the pilot’s and sensor operator’s display in real-time.  The two operators can choose to record or take screen shots from the live-feed video.  The video or still shots can later be manipulated to satisfy needs in post-production using Works well Core player and Works well ThermoFormat to analyze collected data.

Communication

Using the Connex Amimon 5.8GHz wireless video transmitter, the system can transfer high definition (HD) video directly to the operators display on the ground.  The benefit of using a 5.8GHz frequency is that larger amounts of data can be transferred and the sensor operator will receive a much higher quality of picture as opposed to 2.4GHz.  A higher quality image will allow the sensor operator and pilot to clearly see the terrain and targets, which will allow for increased safety and a more efficient flight.

CONNEX engineers state that 1000 meter line-of-sight (LOS) is the maximum allowed distance for this transmitter to travel before transmission becomes interrupted. Though the entire UAS is controlled almost entirely by the visual line of sight, this does not pose a problem for the operators as a 5.8 GHz frequency could become interrupted once the visual line of sight is lost from the aircraft.  Information gathered by the sensor is transmitted from the aircraft to the Connex Ground unit’s antenna.  The Connex Ground-unit then manipulates the data to a viewable image.  The image is then transferred via HDMI to the operators’ display for actionable data.

Regulations

According to 14 CFR part, 107 (2016)landing or operating unmanned aircraft is prohibited on lands and waters administered by the National Park Service within the designated area.  To obtain a special permit for operation of drone inside of a restricted or private airspace, one must contact the Associate Director, Visitor, and Resource Protection (ADVRP).  14 CFR Part 107 (2016) also states that, once a special permit is obtained, activities such as launching, landing, or operating an unmanned aircraft within a restricted environment are allowed.

Weather Minimums

14 CFR Part 107 informs operators that “the minimum flight visibility requirement of three statute miles is necessary to ensure that the remote pilot in command can see far enough away to detect a manned aircraft near the area of operation in time to avoid a collision with other aircraft”.  Currently, manned and unmanned flight within the park is restricted, but each park can edit rules as needed.  Rocky Mountain National Park has this published rule in several handouts and visible signs at various scenic areas.  Additionally, 14 CFR Part 107 states that (2016) “cloud clearance provisions that require the small unmanned aircraft to maintain a distance of at least 500 feet below the cloud and 2,000 feet horizontally away from cloud are necessary to reduce the possibility of having a manned aircraft exit the clouds on an unalterable collision course with the significantly slower small unmanned aircraft.”  Again, the UAS will not be operating in a space that shares any manned aircraft. All other unmanned aircraft systems will be in possession of the national park or other operators in conjunction with the national park system.

As stated before, the national parks are a fully restricted airspace with absolutely no aircraft movement within the published vicinity.  There will be no need for air traffic control communication coordination throughout the parks, but communication between the unmanned aircraft operators and local park authorities will be vital in order to assure safety and liability within the park throughout the survey process.

System Safety

Maintaining safety while efficiently completing the task at hand can prove to be a difficult accomplishment. The Spreading Wings vehicle is equipped with a rebuilt power distribution system that improves safety and reliability.  Also, DJI states that the latest motors adopt a single-wire stater design, offering improved heat dissipation, better performance, and a more reliable system.

FailSafe

The Spreading Wings system’s flight controller comes equipped with FailSafe, a protection system that will automatically control the aircraft to reduce injuries or damage when transmitter signal is lost.  FailSafe can be programmed for many different commands once the signal is lost for greater than three seconds.  Commands that are common include auto hovering at present altitude, return to launch point and return to launch point and slowly descend to land.

Low Voltage Protection

Another safety feature that is incorporated is low voltage protection. Low voltage protection is used to alert low battery voltage during flight by alerting the operator through the controls.  In this case, users should promptly fly the aircraft back to the launch point and land to avoid unexpected damage.  The home point recorded is the same in both FailSafe and Low Voltage Protection.  The aircraft will not go home if there are less than six global positioning system (GPS) satellites available or the distance between the aircraft and home point is less than 25 meters and the height over the home point is less than 20 meters.

DJI Dropsafe

If neither of these protection systems works, the WIRIS system includes a DJI Dropsafe speed reduction parachute system.  DJI Dropsafe specialists (2016) state:

“The system is designed to slow the speed of the aircraft in the event of an emergency.  It deploys in less than half a second and is effective at a minimum altitude of six meters.  The reusable design weighs less than 550 grams, adding very little weight to the flight payload”.

Second, the operator can deploy the Drop safe system manually by presetting a dedicated switch on the remote controller and toggling it in the event of an emergency.  Additionally, a back-up battery safeguards the system, so if the main battery fails, the Dropsafe can still be manually deployed.

For an added safety feature, there are two ways the Dropsafe system may be triggered.  One way the system can be triggered is if the operator is using a DJI flight controller. The Dropsafe system will deploy automatically if a fatal malfunction is detected.

Theory of Operation

The key operation of this system is for a National Parks Service representative to pair with a competent UAS pilot and sensor operator. The three individuals would travel by current means of transportation or by horse back through rough terrain to reach an optimal location, predetermined by both the representative and operators.  Depending on the nature of the data collection, the crew will coordinate with other staff of the park to obtain a safe and friendly environment for the park members while the UAS is in operation.  When all available data is collected, the crew will pack up all belongings and report that the area is no longer under UAS operation.

By employing a new method to understand the wildlife that roams the many acres of national parks in the United States we can learn more about the world around us without fear of destroying the delicate landscape.  An easily deployable and safe system is critical for such an important task.  With many safety measures and a trained crew, thousands of acres can now be surveyed and collections of data can be used to track wildlife trends for years to come.