Master of Forestry student Elisabeth McElwee studied the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) as a tool in forest management for her Master's Project (MP). McElwee worked with The Forestland Group to explore how drones could be used as a tool in forest management in the mountainous mixed broadleaf forests of West Virginia. After much research and failed field trials the limitations of drone use in this terrain became clear. This determination led McElwee to conduct a nationwide survey of forest-related professionals to better understand how others were using drones for forest management in 2021. This research has enabled forest managers, including those at The Forestland Group, to better understand constraints and opportunities with drone use to make informed decisions going forward. 

Duke Environment recently corresponded with McElwee to discuss the key findings of her MP and some of the skills she will carry forward into her career.

What are the key findings of your MP?  

McElwee Drone Ground Control

More than half of the sample population of forest managers are not currently using drones. The majority of those who do not use drones would like to, however, many cite a lack of knowledge and training to do so. 

Of those already using drones, the majority use them for photography and videography (for communication purposes), mapping property, assessing plant health, assessing properties post-timber harvest, monitoring active logging, and conducting non-harvest activities. Although, they are also being used on a smaller scale for monitoring wildlife, urban planning, monitoring wildfire, conducting timber inventory, monitoring prescribed fire and checking real estate.  

There are several limitations affecting drone use including Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations (particularly the ability to fly beyond visual line of sight), the affordability of drones and sensors (LiDAR, multispectral, hyperspectral, thermal), the ability to conduct timber inventory across various terrains and species compositions, as well as the availability of educational resources. 

Going forward it will be vital to educate those in forest management on how to use drones to gather data whether it be imagery or from sensors. It will be important to inform people about software as well as the methods in processing and interpreting data gathered using a drone. Additionally, people in forest management should watch for the evolution of FAA regulations as they have the power to influence the ways in which drones can be utilized. Taking these steps will enable forest managers to use this powerful tool to its full potential as technologies become more affordable.  

How will having practical work experience in this project help you in your career? 

The work experience that I gained during my project is invaluable. I ran into roadblocks and challenges that I hadn’t foreseen, pushing me to be flexible and adaptable. I had to come up with solutions to difficult problems under pressure and pick up new skills such as coding with R within a matter of months. This was a powerful lesson that I will carry with me into the next stages of my career.  

What drew you to this project/client? 

Since attending the University of Vermont (UVM) and working at UVM’s Spatial Analysis Lab, I have been fascinated by the use of drones in monitoring land-use/land change.

McElwee and client in forest planning

When I began my Master of Forestry at Duke, I wondered how I could take my fascination with drones and apply it to forest management. That’s when I came upon the Charles Collins Internship with The Forestland Group. They asked each applicant to propose a project related to conservation and forest management. It was a unique opportunity that allowed me to explore my interests in drone use in forest management, while also providing them with information on this newly emerging technology.

Additionally, The Forestland Group is a great organization that manages millions of acres of natural forests and has made great contributions to conservation efforts and climate mitigation. Not only that but they are one of the largest landowners in my home state of West Virginia, so it was exciting to get to work for an organization that holds value in a place that is near to my heart.  

The Master’s Project combines the academic rigor of a thesis with the practical experience of an internship, allowing students to apply the skills and knowledge they’ve acquired in the classroom to projects that tackle real-world environmental challenges.