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Science Week Challenge: Flying Drones for River Restoration!

aerial photo of a river with algal blooms on the surface

Did you catch Chippie Kislik’s talk at EduDrone 2020? She spoke about her work using drones to monitor algal blooms in the environment, and how to turn it into an activity for the classroom (perfect for upcoming National Science Week!)

Missed it? Don’t stress! EduDrone 2021 is just one week away, back for another year of STEM-spiration! Get your tickets here!

EduDrone poster of Chippie Kislik

The good, the bad, and the algae

Chippie Kislik first became interested in water quality when she was a child, and noticed green slimy stuff in the lake that she used to swim in with her family. She learnt that this green stuff was algae, and although it was really important for the lake, too much of it was a problem! At university she started making maps and looking at satellite imagery to find algae in lakes, and she realised that she could use drones to look for this algae as well!

Now, Chippie is a PhD Candidate at the University of California, Berkley, studying algae in Northern California on the Klamith River. Chippie loves working with drones because they’re really fun to fly, have really high resolution, and also give her the flexibility to collect data quickly in response to an event such as an algal bloom.

Drones for river restoration in California

On the Klamith River, there are 4 huge hydroelectric dams (such as Iron Gate Dam). There is a proposal to remove these dams to restore river health and declining salmon runs. If it goes ahead, this will be the biggest dam removal project in human history. However, it’s hard to know just how dam removal will affect aquatic life in rivers, and Chippie wants to know how it will impact algae!

Instead of using traditional monitoring techniques such as snorkelling or swimming (which can be challenging and dangerous!), Chippie uses drones to monitor from above. Using drones can really help when monitoring restoration projects such as improving fish habitat, reducing nutrient inputs or increasing sediments. The high-resolution imagery offers a unique way to capture ecological responses.

Iron Gate Dam

In the Summer of 2020, Chippie was doing field work for three weeks looking at algae at 32 different sites below the Iron Gate Dam on the Klamith River using a Phantom 4 Pro. She would fly right next to river when there was easy river access, or would drive to a location up above the river and fly from there. She also collected samples from the river and looked at the condition and the colour of the algae, as well as estimating the percentage cover of algae in each of the 32 sites. 

These methods of detecting and quantifying algae with a drone were really successful! Chippie found she could accurately detect algae and classify the imagery with ArcGIS Pro Software, and estimate the percentage of the river that was covered by algae. These results are super helpful because they show how a drone can be used to monitor algae in response to processes like restoration activities and dam removal.

a black drone parked on a launch pad near the river
a piece of algae found in the river

Turn this into a classroom activity!

Why not take your class on a field trip to monitor a river, lake, or pond near you? Chippie shares how her work can be easily adapted into a classroom activity. 

Here are the steps:

  1. Fly your classroom drone at local river, pond, or beach that has floating algae.
  2. Capture aerial photos of any algae that you see on the surface.
  3. Print out best images on paper (the best photos are ones that don’t have solar reflection, you can see the algae well, and they aren’t blurry).
  4. Get your students to use markers or colourful pencils to highlight areas within the photos where they see algae.
  5. Estimate the percent cover of algae within the river/pond/beach area by using a grid or graph paper.
  6. Repeat the exercise throughout the semester.
  7. Graph the changes to see how algae growth is fluctuating. You may possibly capture an algal bloom event or the response to a restoration project.
a collage photo showing a drone and algae growth detected in the river

Some helpful hints

Chippie mentioned that there are a couple of things to bear in mind, especially when flying drones over water: 

  • Try not to crash your drone into the water – it may not be recoverable!
  • The reflection of the sun and the movement of the wind on the water’s surface can make algal detection challenging – try flying with as little wind as possible and avoid flying right at solar noon (12-1pm).
  • Look out for obstacles like telephone poles and bridges!
  • Maintain visual line of site – this can be tricky if the river meanders, so try flying higher to avoid this.
  • Make sure you fly at the same elevation each time so that your % cover comparisons are consistent.
  • Remember to charge all your batteries and bring extras when you’re in the field!
a body of water filled with algae

Want to learn more?

If you’re interested in learning more about drone mapping, data processing, or analysis, you can join Chippie at DroneCamp! This is a super fun 3-day course for drone enthusiasts, with no prior experience required. It is geared towards educators, drone professionals, university students, and anyone who’s interested in learning how to fly drones and interpret the imagery. The best part? It’s all online! So you can join from anywhere!

Drones are really useful tools for monitoring change in aquatic environments such as rivers, lakes and ponds. Chippie’s research has shown how drones can be used as an alternative to traditional survey messages such as swimming and snorkelling, and provide information on how aquatic life is responding to restoration activities. She showed us how to adapt her methods for the classroom, so that students can get out flying for data collection, analysis, and interpretation!

Watch her full video below! And you can download her full presentation slides here.

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