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Drones Help Detect Early Threats to Ash Trees in Boulder, Colo.

The eight-motor "octocopter" drones, equipped with a MicaSense RedEdge 5-band multispectral cameras, flew for the first time last week.

(TNS) -- Drones may be a key tool to the future of battling emerald ash borer and other blights that can impact the urban forest, and that buzzing some might have heard in southeast Boulder on July 13 was the sound of a team setting out to prove just that.

From three separate locations south of Baseline Road and east of Foothills Parkway, a group of scientists and researchers sent drones as high as 335 feet over areas including ash trees showing varying levels of damage from the emerald ash borer, a invasive green jewel beetle that feeds on the ash tree species.

"What we're really interested in is early detection," said Dan Staley, principal of Arbor Drone, a consulting firm based in Aurora specializing in aerial urban forestry. "The very first indicators of emerald ash borer is what we're trying to show."

The squad taking to the streets of Boulder included Staley; his 14-year-old daughter (and "mapper"), Payne Jungblut; Loren Anderson and Tim Haynie, chief of operations and CEO and founder, respectively, of Colorado Springs-based Spectrabotics, a data analytics firm; and Darren Ceckanowicz, technical director for the environmental program at Colorado College.

The work was made possible both through a matching $50,000 Innovation Grant that Spectrabotics has received from the Colorado Office of Economic Development, as well as a $10,000 grant to Arbor Drone from Denver, where approximately 15 percent of the city's 300,000 urban trees are ash species and potentially at risk.

"We're collaborating, just sort of sharing data and sharing platforms," said Ceckanowicz, who has worked extensively in studying seed migration patterns at tree line in the Pikes Peak National Forest. "We're supplying our drone and multispectral camera to gather the data. We fly our platform for him (Staley), and he shares his data with us."

A chance to salvage trees

The "octocopter" eight-motor drones, equipped with a MicaSense RedEdge 5-band multispectral cameras, flew first on Thursday morning from a staging area at Aztec Court just east of 55th Street, before moving to the south end of Oneida Street near Keewaydin Meadows Park and finally a business park at the south end of Manhattan Drive near U.S. 36.

The cameras on board the drones had the capability to measure separate and distinct regions of the electromagnetic spectrum, later to be combined and processed for detailed vegetation analysis, Staley said.

The sensors have the capacity to distinguish between tree species and report on vegetation heath. Flown at drone height levels, images are two to three times sharper than images from airplanes, he said.

Spectrabotics will use its own processing for aligning and assembling the resulting images into a map product, showing the analysis. Those images can then be layered in with other geospatial information, including soil maps and historical imagery, to provide context to the analysis.

At Thursday's first two launch points, ash trees were showing varying levels of emerald ash borer infestation. The third location was selected because trees there are showing greater damage.

"We're trying to get the whole spectrum, from healthy trees, to really damaged, and everything in between," Anderson said. "If we can prove that the technique works and refine it, the idea now is, can we get this into urban foresters' hands to salvage the ash trees that are being decimated throughout the Midwest?

"Right now, prevention — in many cases — means removing the trees. If we can identify infested trees early enough, we hope they can be salvaged."

'A cool idea'

Although the work was being done Thursday in Boulder, the city's forestry staff was not party to the project.

"It's not something that they're doing in conjunction with us," said Ken Fisher, a forestry field operations supervisor for Boulder. "We actually don't have a difficult time finding emerald ash borer. We're good at it from the ground."

Acknowledging that Staley had been in contact with his office, Fisher said, "We said, 'Thanks, but no thanks. We're on it.'"

City foresters maintain trees in the public right-of-way, Fisher said, which are located primarily adjacent to streets and in city parks. That, he said, means that "windshield surveys" — driving each and every city street — or walking through the parks provide effective tree health surveys. The city is in the midst of such a survey now. It will continue into August.

But, speaking of Staley and his associates' project, Fisher said, "I think it's a cool idea. It seems like a good idea, that new technology. But we don't need that service."

Boulder was chosen over Longmont for Thursday's project, the team said, because Federal Aviation Administration rules have would required first securing permission from that city's Vance Brand Municipal Airport.

Multispectral imaging has been used to detect citrus greening disease in Florida orange groves, Staley said, but he described his work as pioneering.

"We're the first ones to be doing this. There is no precedent for it," he said.

He was seconded by Ceckanowicz: "It's a really novel technology, at the forefront of innovation," he said. "Drones are going to be everywhere. ... So, how can we use them scientifically?"

©2017 the Daily Camera (Boulder, Colo.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.