Avian research project takes off

Avian research project takes off McGill University

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McGill Reporter
May 29, 2008 - Volume 40 Number 18
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 40: 2007-2008 > May 29, 2008 > Avian research project takes off

Avian research project takes off

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Dominique Chabot gets set to launch the unmanned aerial vehicle on another high-flying research mission.
Owen Egan

While most researchers feel varying degrees of stress, few get heart palpitations and sweaty palms every time they do a trial. Then again, not many have the very future of their projects riding on their ability to land a 2.5-kilogram, radio-controlled airplane in an open field on a gusty day. A little wind shear here or there and - boom (literally) - time to find a new line of inquiry.

Welcome to Dominique Chabot's high-flying world. Now in the second year of his master's program in wildlife biology, Chabot is at the helm, or the joystick, of a project testing the viability of using small, and relatively inexpensive drone planes to collect aerial photographs for wildlife biology applications.

"Currently, this type of data has been collected by using cameras mounted on full-sized airplanes and helicopters," Chabot said. "In the U.S. alone, biologists spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year doing aerial surveys for wildlife purposes and game management."

One of the applications Chabot is testing is habitat mapping. In the lab, Chabot programs the unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, to fly in a back-and-forth, lawn-mower pattern at a specific altitude over a certain tract of land. During the flight, which can last up to several hours depending on the size of the plane's batteries, the drone takes a series of overlapping pictures that are later stitched together to create a massive, high-resolution image of several hundred acres. The final product is of such high quality that researchers can zoom in to accurately record minute topographical details and even the types of vegetation covering the area.

"This is really important for conservation purposes," Chabot said. "There is a complex ecological interaction between a species and its habitat. If we can characterize the ideal habitat of an endangered species, maybe we can start identifying new potential habitats or improve existing ones."

Later this summer, Chabot and plane will travel to Baie-du-Febvre on the south shore of Lac Saint-Pierre near Nicolet to plot the habitat of the Least Bittern for Canadian Wildlife Services. Considered a threatened species in Quebec, this small wading bird is found in considerable numbers in Baie-du-Febvre. By plotting this unique habitat, researchers hope to unlock the mystery of the bird's decline elsewhere in the province.

Bird on birds

The UAV project is the brainchild of David Bird, Director of McGill's Avian Science and Conservation Centre, who was turned on to the technology when approached by a Vancouver vineyard owner looking to employ similar drones to scare away flocks of starlings wreaking havoc on his annual harvest. A renowned raptor expert, Bird was asked to help design the look and the flight pattern of the plane to closely resemble that of a hawk.

While the project never got off the ground, Bird recognized the enormous potential of the technology. "The applications are almost unlimited," Bird said. "For example, it is difficult to get out on the ice to count seals. You send one of these up and you can get an extremely accurate census. You can census just about any animal with this, from snow geese to caribou. And we're the only people in Canada doing this."

Bird applied to the Kenneth Molson Foundation for a grant to begin testing UAV technology. With interests in both wildlife and aviation, the foundation proved to be a perfect fit. The project quickly sprouted wings.

Bird approached Chabot in the spring of 2007. The latter had already begun devising a master's project involving peregrine falcons in northern Quebec, but the project was in a holding pattern as Chabot scrambled for funding. It didn't take much convincing to get Chabot to jump airships. "Within one minute of talking to David, I knew this was something special," Chabot said. "I signed on right away."

Fasten your seatbelts

Although landing the grant money and landing the grad student were easy, landing the airplane proved to be somewhat more treacherous.

Winnipeg-based MicroPilot supplied both the UAV and a week-long training session for Chabot. "But the training was all about assembling the plane, programming it, using the software and troubleshooting," Chabot said. "No one actually showed me how to fly it."

Instead, Chabot spent the next two weeks "in a vegetative state" in front of his computer on a flight simulator. "Luckily, as a kid I played a lot of computer games. But unlike real games, this one has no objectives, no high scores. You do the same thing every time - launch the plane and fly it around and around. It fried my brain a little."

After logging 80 hours of simulator time, Chabot moved on to live action. The team purchased an inexpensive model plane so Chabot could practise in real time. "It went pretty well for the first two weeks," Chabot said, laughing, "until it literally ripped apart in mid-air and disintegrated."

Throwing caution and the ominous demise of the model plane to the wind, the decision was made for Chabot to fly the UAV. The bulk of the grant money already had been sunk in the UAV and the accompanying software. One Hindenburg moment and all would be lost.

The tricky part wasn't the takeoff (the UAV is thrown in the air much like a giant paper airplane) or the flying itself (the flight patterns are pre-programmed and entirely automated), it was the landing. "Every time I flipped the switch giving me manual control, my heart beat faster," said Chabot. "It was pretty nerve-wracking."

And while the plane sports its share of nicks and scrapes, that it is still flying and taking photographs is a testament to the speed of Chabot's learning curve - both at the controls and in the shop. "I learned pretty fast that in aviation, you spend as much time doing maintenance as you do flying."

Until now, Chabot has used the UAV to do everything from census bald eagles in B.C. to map out beaver lodges in the Adirondacks. But like all enterprising test pilots, he has set his sights on the distant horizon. "This is really cutting edge and it can have applications in almost any field. An entomology student recently suggested I hang a net off the plane and collect samples of insects at various altitudes… and I'm starting to think about little helicopters filming wildlife documentaries like Planet Earth. The sky's the limit."

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"Luckily, as a kid I played a lot of computer games."
Dominique Chabot