Eagle-eyed highland habitat management

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Owner of Balckstaff Ecology Cormac Loughran (left) and his brother Phillip

The boggy uplands of Northern Ireland can prove difficult terrain to cover on foot, but for ecological consultant Cormac Loughran it’s all part of the job.

He helps landowners and farmers carry out habitat management programs designed to mitigate the effects of building new infrastructure from roads to drainage and even wind turbines in sensitive environments.

With some sites as large as 2,400 hectares carrying out an effective survey can take as long as two weeks on foot. But what if there was some way to cut down on the tedious legwork associated with environmental monitoring? Last October Loughran decided to invest in the latest in surveying technology, one of senseFly’s eBee fixed wing drones.

“A drone helps me cover massive areas that I couldn’t cover on foot in these difficult to reach wet boggy environments in the mountains,” he says. “You can pick out areas of good habitat or interesting features to investigate on the ground rather than the standard random approach where you basically just zig-zag over the whole site hoping to stumble across things of interest.”

Having only received permission to fly from the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) earlier this summer his business Blackstaff Ecology has yet to put the drones to commercial use. But Loughran believes the drone could reduce the time to carry out a survey on a site of that size from two weeks to just two or three days.

The possibilities afforded by the drone for his business are endless. As well as traditional habitat management surveys, Loughran believes the drone’s ability to capture oblique imagery as well as create 3D models of the landscape could prove useful for carrying out everything from water modelling studies to river surveys and even taking aerial shots for high-end estate agents. “We’re really just scratching the surface, but the opportunities are huge,” he says.

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Multi-talented machine

A lot of Balckstaff’s work involves determining the ecological impact of wind farm developments. Delivery of the turbines, which can be around 50m long, to their upland sites require them to travel by narrow rural roads and the massive turning circles needed by the trucks often requires temporary widening works or even the creation of brand new roads.

Being able map the length of the route with a drone can cut the time required to determine what work needs to be done as well as avoid the need to negotiate the access to farmers’ land to carry out traditional surveys.

The portability of the eBee drone, which can be packed into a case that fits in an airplane’s overhead locker, also opens the possibility of working across Europe. With qualified drone operators in short supply Loughran is hopeful they will be able to sub-contract out their drone services to larger operators in need of extra manpower for large projects.

One of Loughran’s initial motivations for buying the drone though, was to cut the amount of money he and his clients were paying to the UK Ordnance Survey (OS) to use their maps in reports.

“I thought to myself why would I want pay OS £500 every year for using these images when I can go produce my own orthorectified images?” he says. “It looks very good as well, because you’re using images bang up to date that you took two weeks ago and that aren’t seven years old.”

In addition, the drone should eventually allow him to carry out topographical surveys for clients to use in their design process. “I want to provide them a full service,” he says. “We’ll do them a habitat survey, but also provide them with a 3D model with contours for them to do their design when building roads or infrastructure and also provide aerial photography for use in reports.”

So far he says there has been considerable interest from clients and he has had several requests for demonstrations. But first he wants to ensure that he and his brother Philip, who has been trained to operate the drone, are fully confident handling the technology before they start commercial operations.

Learning the trade

“We realise it’s going to have to be completely intuitive,” he says. “We have to be so used to the machine it’s like riding a bike so we’re going out and practicing short flights in a variety weather in variety terrain.”

Training on the drone involved two days with the local distributor of the eBee followed by two days with EuroUSC, which carries out assessments for the CAA for those applying for The Basic National UAS Certificate.

Blackstaff then had to create a flight manual for their drone that includes rules about how to operate the drone as well as various safety protocols. This was followed by a half-day assessment at EuroUSC’s Bristol test centre where Philip had to carry out a mock flight-plan with the instructor who also gave him various safety scenarios to react to.

According to Loughran the eMotion flight software that comes with the eBee is very well designed making operation relatively simple, but the training provided is limited and it is a steep learning curve to find out how to operate the drone in real-world conditions.

“Basically you have to just play with the software and learn what does. It’s a bit like driving car. You learn to do everything like it says in the rule book then you have go practice in different conditions, different landscape situations, different terrains and environments until you start to really learn what works and what doesn’t.

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Processing power

And while the Terra3D surveying software that comes with the eBee is intuitive, the sheer processing power required to get the best out of the technology has been an issue for a small business like Blackstaff. One trial project at a windfarm that involved seven 53 minute flights resulted in 58GB of data.

“You need quite a powerful computer to process the data,” he says “If you take 400 images over five or six flights, to put it all together can take two days to process all the information.”

The firm has now bought a 4TB server to handle the data and Loughran plans to upgrade to a professional AutoCAD workstation with two cores, but the issue is not simply his company’s capabilities. “I’m going to have to learn how to vary the amount of data you provide, because some people just don’t have the processing power to deal with that amount of information.”

Despite the drawbacks though, Loughran believes using drones could massively improve the quality and variety of services his firm can provide. The rate of innovation in the field does sometimes make him worry that by the time they properly understand their equipment it will be obsolete.

But he’s confident that by being ahead of the crowd, the expertise him and his brother build up will give them a head start when the technology becomes ubiquitous. “Even if with the first iteration of this device we don’t make a fortune, over time that skill base and that knowledge we develop will give us dividends in the longer term,” he says.