The Forest at Four Hundred Feet

Posted by Hannah Meganck on August 29, 2017

The Blues Network shares science innovations that enhance collaborative forest restoration work in eastern Oregon.


By Kendal Martel, Forest Program Associate at Sustainable Northwest

Just a few years ago, the subject of drones was surrounded by fear and controversy. However, due to the unyielding power of human creativity and ingenuity, a piece of technology that many once associated with high-tech weapons is proving itself to be a creative and innovative tool for monitoring and observing our forests like never before. The popularity of drone use in conservation has increased over the past few years, and drones are now being used in the sectors of agriculture, forestry, oceanography, and a number of other conservation related realms.

For Eastern Oregon resident, Grayback Forestry base manager and longtime forest collaborative member Dave Hannibal, a two pound Mavic Pro drone has given him a unique and unprecedented perspective of the need for restoration on Oregon’s forested landscapes. Dave hopes that this innovative technology can better inform collaborative members and forest management by literally offering a different and larger perspective, and says that the usefulness of this drone is evolving the more he learns about it, and the better he becomes at flying it.

For Dave, the impetus for getting a drone started when his GoPro camera was stolen out of his pickup truck.

“I had been using my GoPro for snowmobiling in the wintertime and my daughter also takes a lot of GoPro footage.” said Dave. “One of my nephews has been flying drones for a long time doing sport photography like base jumping, snowboarding, skiing and rock climbing so I got some advice from him on models. I got it as the next evolution after the GoPro. I thought, maybe instead of getting a GoPro I should just get a drone.” 

What started out as a hobby quickly turned into what Dave described as one of the most innovative tools to come along in twenty years for forest restoration. 

“I did my first couple of flights over a thousand acre prescribed fire and instantly realized that this was an amazing tool because of the angles and scale that you can see, as well as the landscape and the distance that you can cover.”

Dave Hannibal flying a drone.
Dave Hannibal flying a drone.

Drones and Prescribed Fire

Dave is now using drones to assess the efficacy of prescribed fires his crews conduct on the forest, and he wants to see where the line of fire is, and where his personnel are located on the fire. 

“Largely I’m trying to look down at a thirty percent angle into the tree canopy from above to keep a better eye on things,” said Dave. “I’m really looking at tree mortality at a landscape level. The question I’m trying to address is “how much mortality do we get in a prescribed fire” To try to answer this, Dave is going back to burns from several years back to capture video.

And according to Dave, the answer is ‘extremely low’. 

“I have yet to find a bad prescribed fire on the Malheur. The ones that I consider bad were ineffective because they didn’t burn enough. In any burn plan, the document that we use to guide prescribed burns, you’re generally allowed 5-10% mortality, and we generally see less than 1% tree mortality in the larger tree size class.”

Dave says one of the key patterns he looks for is high level results of tree mortality versus green trees. 

“Once I get better at flying on the ground level, the next item on the agenda is assessing consumption of fuels on the ground.

Benefits of Drone Footage to Forest Collaboratives

Dave has been a member of the Blue Mountains Forest Partners (BMFP) and the Harney County Restoration Collaborative for many years. Many forest collaboratives in Eastern Oregon are committed to utilizing best available science and innovative technologies to inform their work enhancing planning on public lands. These efforts hinge upon increasing the comprehension and understanding of many ecological functions across vast landscapes, as well as tying in the social values of diverse stakeholders in the community. Dave says that this technology will be incredibly important to bringing a significant amount of information to a lot more people, and will be very useful to forest collaboratives on field trips, during multiparty monitoring, and in conducting other forms of restoration besides prescribed fire.

“I flew the drone for HCRC at the same location of a recent field trip,” said Dave, “I launched from the same field stop and flew through much of the drainage. I then posted it to the collaborative website so that everybody got this huge amount of context about what is was that we were looking at. We were standing in a pretty tight drainage and now all of a sudden you’re taking a helicopter reconnaissance flight, and it lends a whole different perspective."

Dave presented his drone footage at a Harney County Restoration Collaborative meeting and says that he believes it changed a lot of perceptions…literally.

“It definitely opened dialogue and inspired a lot of questions about the project and what it is the group saw on the ground versus what they were seeing above the ground.”

Because this tool inspired quite a bit of new dialogue and provided new context, Dave wants to continue using it on forest collaborative field trips.

Dave also says that the drone will be useful to fly through completed projects and enhance the visualization needed for multiparty monitoring.

“When we take field trips we only do about five stops,” said Dave. “You can’t really replace a field trip; standing in the woods together is important, but if we flew through a thousand acres and showed that in meetings, attached it to meeting notes, and sent interested parties the link, its going to increase the comprehension and understanding about what we do tenfold.” 

According to Dave, these drones are “incredibly intelligent”. He says that he can use Virtual Reality goggles to see the forest from the drone’s eye view. 

Even more useful, using a computer program and Google Earth, he can input GPS coordinates and create a predetermined path that the drone will be able to follow autonomously. It will take pictures of different points of interest that were completely programmed at his desk that morning.

Dave has been working with a researcher at OSU to take aerial photographs of research plots on the Malheur National Forest.

“I input those exact GPS coordinates, the drone flies over them autonomously and takes a picture straight down over the study plots,” said Dave. “I park, hit the launch sequence, monitor the drone and wait for it to come back.”

Dave said that he sees a lot more in store for this technology and how it can inform the work of forest collaboratives. 

Aerial drone view of a riparian area.
Aerial drone view of a riparian area.
“One thing I want to do is increase understanding about modern riparian restoration.” said Dave. “Just as a prescribed fire is ugly in the first two years, riparian restoration is pretty ugly as well. With this drone I could fly a mile of a river or a creek ten feet off the water. How much are we going to be able to see of that if we go out on a field trip?”

“I’m hoping to help inform public perception and show that we are not destroying the forest with prescribed fire as some think, so one of the most useful parts of this is enhancing public outreach.”

Dave says he has seen excitement and support among federal agency partners around drones as a tool for forest management, but that the laws and regulations around drone use still remain stringent.

“Even though the rules are tough, it is worth it to embrace this technology and go down that road.”

Additionally, Dave made a case for the human safety and financial return on the use of drones to conduct reconnaissance on forest projects as well as forest fires, highlighting the tragic events that can take place on helicopter missions.

“We owned a helicopter at Grayback Forestry for many years,” said Dave.  “I’ve done a lot of helicopter time and love flying, but we also had a contracted helicopter fall out of the sky over a fire down in Northern California and nine people did not come back. On more basic missions is that reconnaissance view worth potentially losing a human life or a $1300 drone?”

Dave also said that in comparison, a one-hour helicopter flight costs about the same as purchasing a drone outright and you end up with high quality footage that is useful later on.  

Overall, Dave Hannibal is excited about continuing to learn more innovative approaches to using drone technology to increase our understanding of management needs on Oregon’s forests.

“Most of my shots have been between 120 and 400 feet above ground level, he said. “As I get better at maneuvering, I’m going to start flying through the forest at about ten feet. That will make for some interesting forest footage to cover. This is one of the best innovations to come along in the last twenty years to help us see more of what it is we are doing out there on the forest and more importantly, to do a better job of it.” 

As new technologies and innovative pioneers like Dave emerge, it is certainly an exciting time to work in forest management. At a time where our limited perspectives stop us from "seeing the forest through the trees," we may very well be able to see both, it's all a matter of broadening perspective.