Drones Are Turning Civilians Into An Air Force Of Citizen Environmentalists

SAN FRANCISCO – Last Winter as meteorologists warned of a monster El Nino, researchers at the Nature Conservancy in California prepared to mobilize. El Niño promised to bring in king tides that would raise the sea level by as much as one foot above normal during high tide, causing flooding along the coastline that researchers could study as a preview of climate change-induced sea level rise. But when a king tide arrives, it floods lots of pockets along the coastline at once. So they decided to try a new, distributed surveillance strategy: commercial drones, co-opted from a gung-ho statewide network of citizen scientists.

The plan had a lot of advantages. In January 2016, when the program started, Nature Conservancy researchers would have had to get pilot licenses in order to fly drones themselves. Private, recreational drone pilots have far fewer restrictions. But the plan hiccuped because though the drone operators collected thousands of beach photos, none were taken of the flooding during the king tides’ brief windows. The Nature Conservancy had managed to recruit citizen scientists, but failed to properly coordinate the data collection.

Despite the trouble, drone science is appealing to researchers. Drones are popular, and cloud storage is cheap. But before they deploy an air force of buzzing quadcopters, scientists who recruit citizen pilots need to make sure they are clear about what kind of data they require.

“The importance of the pilot project was to figure out how citizen science data can be useful,” says Kirk Klausmeyer, a spatial data scientist with the Nature Conservancy, “and how it maybe wasn’t as useful as we were hoping.” The Nature Conservancy’s project collected 7,000 images and mapped 1,600 acres of coastline—but the 16 drone operators missed the most scientifically useful data. “We were hoping that the drone operators would be able to get out in a very narrow window of time, during these extreme high tides,” said Klausmeyer.

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