UW Botany Professor Heads Innovative Research Project in Costa Rica

Wyoming News September 27, 2018

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UW Botany Professor Heads Innovative Research Project in Costa Rica

LARAMIE, WY.     –    What is one thing that researching plants and filming extreme sports have in common? Though it seems unlikely, the answer is drones.

Drones may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of plant research, but one University of Wyoming professor has begun using drones in a new way.

Greg Brown, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor in the Department of Botany, has been studying high-canopy vegetation in the neotropical forests of South America for 35 years. Now, he is using drones to photograph plants called epiphytes, which live high in the crowns of the trees that can range anywhere from 70 to 150 feet tall.

One key aspect of high-canopy research is finding ways to access the plants under study. Climbing trees, a traditional access method, is low-cost but requires technical training, gear and professional climbing assistance. Because specific sought-after plants sometimes do not turn up in the trees where researchers think they will be, tree climbing is often unsuccessful and is dangerous and difficult, even with assistance.

Brown developed the idea of using drones as reconnaissance tools in order to make the application of tree climbing more efficient, so he took a team to Costa Rica this summer to test the theory’s feasibility through a College of Arts and Sciences faculty seed research grant.

“I did an exhaustive literature search and found that nobody had ever done any close-up photography of plants, let alone epiphytic plants,” Brown says. “Then, I started collaborating with a colleague here on campus, Ramesh Sivanpillai. He knows a lot about remote sensing, and that’s really what this is — you’re sensing or photographing something from a distance. So, with that, we wrote a proposal, and it got funded.”

The interdisciplinary team that went to Costa Rica consisted of Brown; Brandon Gellis, an assistant professor of graphic design; Sivanpillai, senior botany research scientist; and UW students Matthew Lehmitz, a master’s student from Laramie, and William Harris, an undergraduate student from Laramie.

Each member of the team played a role in piloting and monitoring the drones and in executing the photography. Over the course of three days, the team collected more than 1,200 digital photographs of the high-canopy epiphytes, demonstrating the potential of small drones in observing and documenting out-of-reach plants in a more efficient fashion.

The photographs collected are already impacting Brown’s own research — and are drawing the attention of many other botanists with great interest in researching other high-canopy plants such as mosses and lichens.

“The tropical forest canopy is considered to be the last frontier of biodiversity because it is so difficult to access,” Brown says. “Just having a photograph, we’re seeing things that we certainly could not see from the ground and things that I did not anticipate at all.”

The next step in Brown’s research using drones will be working with engineers to design a drone that will be able to collect and carry plant samples back to the ground, which would further eliminate the need for tree climbing. He is preparing a grant proposal to the National Geographic Society to fund going back to Costa Rica as well as Brazil to collect new data with the use of drones.

Brown will present the results of his preliminary drone field tests Oct. 7-12 in Brazil at Monocots VI, a botany, biodiversity conservation and plant biotechnology conference.

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