June 23, 2022

Educational drone survey of canopy targets sick trees

Jon Robinson

— By Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press

Drones could help save Winnipeg’s elm trees from being tagged with a fatal orange mark, owing to the work of experienced pilots and their student assistants.

Throughout the 2021-22 school year, Volatus Aerospace Corp., a so-called “drone solution company,” has recruited high school students to take part in a research project that aims to streamline canopy surveillance in Winnipeg.

City employees typically survey trees for Dutch elm disease either on foot or by driving past them. It’s a laborious process — and by the time a human eye can spot wilting, curling or yellowing leaves, it may be too late to reverse the damage caused by the fungal infection.

In partnership with the City of Winnipeg, University of Winnipeg and Seven Oaks School Division, Volatus is using drone technology to try and speed up the diagnosis process.

A remote aircraft equipped with a parachute and sensors, a set-up valued at nearly $40,000, can measure how much near-infrared light bounces off leaves to determine whether or not a plant is infected with illness.

Volatus education director Matthew Johnson likened a healthy tree to a mirror.

“If the tree is healthy, then it’s going to reflect most of the near-infrared light from the sun and back up to the sensor,” he said.

Since leaves on a sick tree have less chlorophyll in them and absorb light as a result, Johnson’s team can pinpoint their exact location (they appear as dark pixels on a map as opposed to the light spots denoting healthy trees) after a drone collects data from any particular forest.

The company can then share that data with the city so it can narrow its search for sick trees and have employees double-check worrying dots.

The firm’s local hub is educating students on its methods and the issue of Dutch elm disease during seminars hosted by industry professionals and public school teachers. Students have also had the chance to fly microdrones this year.

The three-year pilot with Seven Oaks aims to pique student interest in programming and equip teenagers with knowledge to obtain a drone licence from Transport Canada.

The extracurricular interested Grade 11 student Samm Mohan because she is both an aspiring pilot and environmentalist. “Making the city better is something I’m looking forward to doing,” she said.

Dutch elm disease, which kills trees by blocking water-conducting tissue, was first identified in Winnipeg in 1975. Over the last six years alone, the city has lost upwards of 33,000 trees to the disease.

(Image: Adobe Stock)