Digital Cameras Aid Research

Aerial surveys become a way of routinely checking areas burned by wildfires or invaded by pests or weeds, and digital imagery is a major part of the technique.

| September 9, 2011

  • Digital image from 300 feet shows arrow-leaf balsamroot on a slope in Wyoming.
    Image taken from about 300 feet above the ground. The blooming plant, growing on a slope in Wyoming, is arrow-leaf balsamroot (Balsamorizha sagittata). A photo taken later that year showed that this area had become covered with cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), an invasive weed that increases the chance of wildfire.
    courtesy Terry Booth/ARS
  • A team prepares to launch an unmanned aerial vehicle to take photos of vegetation near Las Cruces, New Mexico.
    At the Jornada Experimental Range in Las Cruces, New Mexico, a team of scientists prepares to launch an unmanned aerial vehicle from a catapult. The mission: to survey vegetation on the ground in studies of vegetation changes over time. In the foreground are engineering technician Craig Winters (left) and pilot Dave Thatcher. Other researchers are in the ground control station.
    courtesy Stephen Ausmus/ARS
  • Aerial photography from a light sport plane helps survey Nevada vegetation.
    During a 2008 aerial survey of streamside vegetation in Nevada, Joe Nance of Cloud Street Aerial Services, Fort Collins, Colorado, flies a light sport plane at about 300 feet while using a remote-sensing package developed by ARS.
    courtesy Terry Booth/ARS
  • ARS scientists use a camera to detect near-infrared, green and blue light in a field of winter wheat in Beltsville, Maryland.
    In a field of winter wheat in Beltsville, Maryland, ARS physical scientist Raymond Hunt (right) uses a camera that detects near-infrared, green, and blue light. Near-infrared and green light are needed to measure the “greenness” of vegetation and relate it to the crop’s nitrogen status. Dean Hively (left), a physical scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey at Beltsville, is measuring greenness with an “on-the-go” sensor available commercially.
    courtesy Peggy Greb/ARS
  • Researchers man the ground control station for an aerial photography mission in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
    In Las Cruces, New Mexico, researchers prepare to launch an unmanned aerial vehicle from a catapult (atop the vehicle). Left to right in the ground control station: ARS technicians Amy Slaughter and Connie Maxwell and New Mexico State University remote sensing scientist Andrea Laliberte.
    courtesy Stephen Ausmus/ARS
  • A panoramic image of part of Arizona's Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.
    A panorama by Mary Nichols of part of Arizona’s Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. The resolution is high enough to focus on individual elements.
    courtesy Mary Nichols/ARS
  • ARS engineer Mary Nichols uses a high-resolution digital camera to take a series of photos for a panorama view of the Tucson Mountains.
    Using a high-resolution digital camera in the Tucson Mountains, ARS hydraulic engineer Mary Nichols obtains a series of photographs that can be put together to create a panorama.
    courtesy Chris Nichols/ARS

  • Digital image from 300 feet shows arrow-leaf balsamroot on a slope in Wyoming.
  • A team prepares to launch an unmanned aerial vehicle to take photos of vegetation near Las Cruces, New Mexico.
  • Aerial photography from a light sport plane helps survey Nevada vegetation.
  • ARS scientists use a camera to detect near-infrared, green and blue light in a field of winter wheat in Beltsville, Maryland.
  • Researchers man the ground control station for an aerial photography mission in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
  • A panoramic image of part of Arizona's Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.
  • ARS engineer Mary Nichols uses a high-resolution digital camera to take a series of photos for a panorama view of the Tucson Mountains.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) aerial photography survey of 38,000 wildfire-burned acres in Idaho provided what is believed to be the first evidence that the invasive leafy spurge weed is displacing seedlings of native mountain big sagebrush.

Terry Booth, a rangeland specialist with the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Rangeland Resources Research Unit in Cheyenne, Wyoming, designed the survey using a technique he developed called Very Large Scale Aerial (VLSA) imagery. The survey of Idaho's "Deep Fire Burn" was done with two cameras at different resolutions aboard a Moyes-Bailey Dragonfly two-seat, light-sport airplane flying just over 300 feet over the area.

ARS is USDA's principal intramural scientific research agency.

Booth found the high-resolution aerial photography technique, usually using three cameras, a good way to sample large areas of the western United States. When supplemented by ground-based methods, it can be used for early detection of invasive species that might threaten native plant populations.



Pesticides and biological-control insects were used to control leafy spurge before and after the wildfire. But the survey, done three years after the fire, showed that leafy spurge still managed to expand in drainage areas and up canyon slopes.

One advantage of this type of aerial survey is that it can be routinely repeated, to keep checking on whether the pesticides or insects are working.






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