Unmanned “Unplugged”

Donna Delparte, Idaho State University

Donna Delparte is an assistant professor in the Department of Geosciences at the Idaho State University. She is currently working with farmers in Southeast Idaho to study how UAS can be used to help assess crop health and detect potential issues. Increasing Human Potential recently had the chance to catch up with Delparte to learn more about this research and her other projects.

Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you came to work at Idaho State?

I am starting my third year as an assistant professor in the Department of Geosciences at Idaho State University. I completed my Ph.D. at the University of Calgary in Canada in research related to using high-resolution imagery to map snow avalanche terrain and hazards for backcountry users. This started my quest and interest in accessing and using high-resolution imagery for aerial mapping and advanced modeling.

Previous to taking my position at ISU, I was working at the University of Hawaii at Hilo in the Department of Geography teaching and doing research in geographic information systems and remote sensing. Hawaii Island is one the best places in the world to be a geographer with interests in the natural environment, agriculture and hazards. However, an opportunity came up at Idaho State University to work with an exceptional group of scientists and return to mountains and rivers related to my interests in terrain modeling, snow and avalanches.

You have an extensive background in the applications of GIS and remote sensing to the fields of geosciences, resource management, and conservation and environmental planning. What does that mean to the layman and why is it important?

I like to make maps, especially high-resolution maps and maps that have 3-D capabilities — maps that make sense to the general public, users and decision makers. We can use these new image processing technologies with data collected with UAS to help address and solve critical issues related to the environment, wildlife conservation and managing natural hazards.

We’ve read your research focus often relates to visualization, 3-D modeling and analysis, specifically to avalanche flow modeling and hazard mapping, terrain models, land cover change, precision agriculture, and image analysis. How do UAS play a role in this?

I currently have a couple of COA [certificate of authorization] applications in with the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] to fly hazard areas for snow avalanches and landslides. I am very excited about utilizing high-resolution imagery and terrain information to map and model avalanche and landslide potential.

My current U.S. Department of Agriculture-supported research project this summer has been to examine agricultural crop health with UAS data. I have a fantastic graduate student with extensive agricultural sector work experience, Mike Griffel, partners at Boise State University, Idaho National Labs, University of Idaho; and the cooperation of farmers in southeast Idaho. We are currently looking at novel approaches to crop health and threat detection to assist farmers in the identification of potential issues. We’ve been working with farmers on concerns which are critical to them and their bottom line. It will be essential to identify what different sensing approaches are appropriate throughout the growing season. This research will continue next year, and what we’ve learned over this summer will inform our decisions for next year’s data collection.

What sort of work and research are you currently conducting? How are unmanned systems useful in this work?

Our main focus has been our recent USDA grant for assessing crop health and threats, which is a two-year project. Year one has involved bringing together a group of cooperating farmers, conducting outreach to determine outputs that will be useful to their operations, and performing preliminary small UAS flights with digital and multispectral cameras. Further, my colleague Louise-Marie Dandurand at the University of Idaho is using a spectral scanner to scan plants under stress. We will be flying a hyperspectral scanner in year two of our study and look to compare this with results from the greenhouse.

How did you originally get involved using unmanned systems in your research?

I began exploring unique ways of data collection and image processing in Hawaii using a structure from motion approach, which is what many of our UAS software packages use for stitching together UAS images. With a group of students, we used this technique to create a 3-D model of Lake Waiau at 13,000 feet by taking overlapping photos from the edge of a crater. This allowed us to remotely sense information about the lake without disturbing many of the sensitive cultural features that surround it. We created a 3-D model of the lake from which we determined lake volume and depth at varying times of the year. The students and I have an article coming out in November in [the journal] Arctic, Antarctic and Alpine Research on this project.

Moving from Hawaii to Idaho is a big change. How does your current location affect the work that you do and the way you employ UAS?

At ISU I am involved in advancing cyberinfrastructure on our campus in a leadership capacity for our National Science Foundation-funded Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research research programs. ISU has been investing in improving research infrastructure for advanced big data analysis and visualization. With UAS data collection, we are collecting and processing incredibly large amounts of data. Our work in to how to effectively manage and analyze this data efficiently will be an important outcome for UAS-related research.

As with many locations across the U.S., especially in rural areas, access to high-resolution imagery data can be very expensive and thus restrictive not only for the interested public, but also for researchers with limited budgets. Our small UAS program alleviates this concern and allows us to collect data to address specific research questions.

What do UAS offer over traditional data collection methods?

With UAS data collection methods — and Federal Aviation Authority approval — we can collect the data we want, when we want and at the resolution that is best suited to the question we want to investigate. For example, for agricultural lands, a major concern is food security. In comparison with boots-on-the-ground sampling procedures, sensors carried by UAS have the potential to cover a considerable area repeatedly over the growing season. This opportunity for conducting remote sensing surveys sparked my interest in developing a UAS program for crop surveying and precision agriculture in southeast Idaho.

As this technology continues to develop, how do you foresee it being used by researchers in the future? What do you see as its greatest benefit?

One of the tremendous growth areas in UAS applications is precision agriculture. In combination with the sensors already being used on tractors and other farm equipment, UAS have the potential to feed information into sustainable and cost-effective farming practices. However, an important consideration is listening to the farming community as to what key sensing information throughout the growing season is important and useful to their operations.

I was recently invited to attend a UAS symposium at The Wildlife Society conference in Pittsburgh. This was an opportunity for marine and terrestrial researchers to get together and compare research experiences and challenges in UAS. Marine researchers have been utilizing UAS platforms to survey whale and seal populations in remote areas in a safe and highly regulated environment with non-disturbance as an absolute priority. Similarly, terrestrial scientists have also been utilizing various UAS to survey land-based wildlife and habitat. As the performance, battery life and image capabilities improve over time, UAS have the potential to provide incredibly rich data to scientists to inform conservation activities.

Another growth area that I foresee is using UAS for natural hazard mapping and in disaster relief efforts. Applications for UAS in landslide and avalanche mapping are of particular interest to me and have the potential to inform decisions about land use and reducing risk exposure for people. Other potential applications are in disaster response, and a good example is the work of one of my former students, Nick Turner, who is involved in UAS mapping of the lava flow currently threatening homes in Hawaii.

What does that future hold for you and unmanned systems? Do you have any exciting projects planned? What would you like to do next?

I have a number of projects in the works for the future with my colleagues in the Geosciences Department at Idaho State University and other collaborators around the state and beyond.

At ISU we have an incredibly talented faculty with a diverse range of expertise. In addition to the projects I’ve mentioned, I have future projects in the works with several geoscientists. With a volcanologist colleague, Dr. Shannon Nawotniak, we hope to conduct a survey of a debris field of an extinct volcano. With geologist Dr. David Pearson we plan to survey fault systems, and with Dr. Carrie Bottenberg, Dr. Mike McCurry and Dr. John Welhan we will be looking for geothermal resources in southeast Idaho.