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NRRI-hosted workshop shows research possibilities with drones

Joe Knight (left) with the Department of Forest Resources at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities gives instruction to George Holt a forest ecologist with the Natural Resources Research Institute who is flying a Solo 3DR drone at the University of Minnesota Duluth Farm Wednesday afternoon. --- Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com1 / 3
A Microdrones md4-1000 quadcopter drone hovers over the University of Minnesota Duluth farm Wednesday afternoon. --- Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com2 / 3
A Microdrones md4-1000 quadcopter drone hovers over the University of Minnesota Duluth farm Wednesday afternoon. --- Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com3 / 3

Not even strong gusts of wind could keep drone enthusiasts from showing off their mini-copters Wednesday afternoon.

While the pilots had given their drones instructions, about a dozen other pairs of eyes craned to see what the unmanned aerial systems were capable of.

Dan Heins pilots a large quadcopter. Clint Austin / DNT"These are mostly university researchers or people from (St. Louis County) who have an interest in the different purposes that drones have," said George Host, a forest ecologist with Minnesota Duluth's Natural Resources Research Institute. Hosted by NRRI, the two-day workshop — which concludes today — not only helps showcase the different kinds of drones that can be used, but how they can be used to collect information on natural resources.

"We focus on natural resource and conservation science," said Dan Heins, an unmanned aircraft systems coordinator with the University of Minnesota. "We're doing things in the area of forestry. We're looking at the health of our wetlands and other riparian systems. We're also looking at conservation areas in general, both doing things for the DNR such as monitoring easements to looking at wildlife."

The data that drones can collect gets even more advanced, too. Currently, Heins is helping the Department of Natural Resources study the effects of conservation grazing on prairie chicken mortality.

Drone technology has gotten a lot smarter in recent years. It's not just about sticking a GoPro camera on a drone to photograph a scenic landscape. Now drones can create 3D topographic maps that measure anything from the health of farm crops to the canopy size of forests.

"It's certainly understanding the landscape a little better, in general, of what we're doing," Heins said. "It helps ensure the safety and correct management of a lot of our conservation areas. So if it's forests, and we tell them how it's growing, then they can manage that forest in a way that's going to leave them with the best outcomes."

These new capabilities have caught the eye of Russell Peterson, a St. Louis County official. While county leaders already have experience with drones, they want to invest in getting one that can help them with other projects.

"We're out here seeing what's available, seeing people do different things. We're just looking for different applications," Peterson said. "We want to be able to find beaver dams if a road is flooding. If it's on private property, we can't really go easily, but we can fly a drone as long as you can see it."

Dan Heins removes the battery pack after flying a large quadcopter. Clint Austin / DNTIt's not just convenience the county is after. Peterson says drones save time and increase safety.

Others hope to integrate a drone's capabilities into education. Laure Charleux says the Geography Department at Minnesota Duluth wants to design a course around drone photography.

On Wednesday, to demonstrate some of the drone's abilities, pilots at the workshop used them to measure the height of trees that were planted years ago.

As complex as drone technology is, flying them doesn't complicate the process. When they're being used for collecting data and building maps, thumbs and joysticks are not required. Instead, a mission is uploaded into software that tells the drone what to do.

"When I'm operating it with some software, that's controlling 99.9 percent of it. It takes off, it does its work and then comes back," said Andy Jenks, a researcher with the University of Minnesota.

It's become simplified enough that all Jenks has to do is use his phone. He can manipulate a box of where he wants the drone to fly, tell it how high he wants it to fly and how much overlap he wants with the photographs being taken.

The drone does the rest.

Jenks said: "I didn't do squat. I pushed 'go'."