Drones Are Mapping An Entire Canadian River

Drones give researchers new perspectives on the St. Lawrence River. They have provided scientists with a variety of new ways to map the river from above. The  St. Lawrence River in Canada has long been an area for researchers and scientists to track the animals to learn more. Drones have now joined in on the fun by allowing the River Institute to map the river and track the wildlife at a much lower cost. Fish biologist, Matthew Windle, operates a research drone and first started using drones in 2013. He works for the River Institute, a conservation organization in Cornwall, Ontario — just across the St. Lawrence River from Massena, NY, to track critically endangered American eels.

Windle points out, “It’s my favorite fish. It’s the most amazing fish, freshwater fish in North America. I hate to use the comparison, but they look kind of like a long snake, but they’re not snakes, they’re fish.”*

About a decade ago, he and his colleagues fitted eels with radio trackers that the drones could pick up and watch as the eels made their way down and his team would track the eels by chasing after them in a boat to keep in range of the signal. This was not only difficult, but it also required many people and found to be “very time-consuming.” In fact, one time they rented a small plane to fly the length of the river with a radio receiver, which, as one can imagine, was extremely expensive.

When other biologists were starting to use drones for research, they usually took aerial photos to count the populations of seals and salmon. Windle’s team, however, put their receiver on a drone and flew it over the river. This method turned out to work well by “just really speeding things up for us in terms of what we can do more in the field now.”

Although the St. Lawrence River may appear to be one huge, wide body of water, it is actually a complex system of interconnected habitats, from deep water to shallow marshes, including dams and contaminants that affect its health and vitality.

Windle points out that technology has improved in the last decade as drones are getting bigger and are thereby better equipped to carry more and different types of cameras which integrate with new software. He says,

“Multispectral cameras can also collect information on wavelengths of light that we can’t see, which tells you about plant health. So, healthy green plants have lots of chlorophyll in them. And they absorb most of the visible light, and reflect really strong near-infrared light. We ended up finding a shipwreck underwater, known to local diving groups, but we had never seen it before. We would have totally missed it if we hadn’t had the drone perspective up in the air, so, that was amazing. It was probably about 100 year old shipwrecked wooden boat, 40 feet long, on the bottom of the river.””*

Leigh McGaughey, Windle’s colleague at the River Institute, points out that there are many areas where further research can help to answer urgent questions about the Upper St.

 Lawrence ecosystem. She explains, “We’ve had so much industry over the last 100 years, and the area has been identified by both Canada and the U.S. as an area of concern because of contaminants that are in the river.”* 

This included Alcoa, General Motors on the U.S. side, and Domtar, in Canada, even though most industrial operations on the edge of the St. Lawrence River, has shuttered over the past 20 years. McGaugheny explains, “People want to know now, how is the ecosystem recovering? You know, are we seeing recovery of the species, and are we able to eat more of the fish?”* 

Such questions, McGaughey says, are types of monitoring scientists are doing they can help to answer. She is working to assemble existing data from different data from different research teams into a report for the general public. Both McGaughey and Windle that new technology, like drones and sensors, can collect so much data so quickly that one of the big challenges is finding the time needed to process all the data and extract meaningful lessons from it. Windle put it, “It can be a little overwhelming, actually, when you start to think about all the uses you can have with drones.”*


The continual advances in technology in the last decade has been amazing!

Drones are not only getting faster, but also bigger, and therefore able to carry more and different types of cameras which integrate with new software. And drones with sensors can collect such an amazing number of data — and so quickly — that one of the big challenges is finding the time necessary to process all the data and extract meaningful lessons from it.

With new technology, comes new challenges, and with it innumerable opportunities to rise to the exciting challenges with the limitless uses of drones — to those who are passionate about life in general, and technology specifically.

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