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UND’s wildlife-survey drone OK’d

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UND’s wildlife-survey drone OK’d
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From 1937 to 2000, 91 wildlife workers nationwide were killed while on the job.

The leading cause of death wasn’t as obvious sounding as animal attacks, snakebites or exposure to the elements.


It was airplane accidents with a total of 52 deaths over those six decades. 

Wildlife counts are often conducted from planes, and the troubling statistics surrounding these risky flights is one of the main reasons why researchers at UND are looking to deploy unmanned aircraft systems to do that work for them.

“The whole idea here is if we can fly a UAS to conduct these censuses they’re already doing in planes, we can hopefully save a lot of lives in the process,” said assistant professor Travis Desell.

Organized by staff from multiple departments at UND, a new research project will use an unmanned aircraft to test equipment used to monitor wildlife populations and habitats near Devils Lake at Sullys Hill National Game Preserve and south of Camp Grafton, N.D.

The project was reviewed and approved Friday morning by UND’s UAS Research Compliance Committee. The group addresses privacy issues related to research activities by unmanned aircraft in North Dakota’s UAS test site, which encompasses the entire state. The Federal Aviation Administration’s permission is required to actually take off.

The UND wildlife survey is the second research project permitted in the test site, which encompasses the entire state. 

Privacy concerns

Researchers present at Friday’s meeting assured the committee that steps will be taken to ensure the UAS don’t invade the privacy of homeowners near the area and visitors to the preserve.

The committee reviews privacy safeguards on a case by case basis, committee member and Associate Vice President for Research and Economic Development Barry Milavetz told the Herald in an interview.

“It’s impossible to have a one size fits all policy,” he said.

Instead, the committee analyzes a variety of factors. In addition to the project location, committee members also take into account what kind of data is collected, how it is gathered, where it is stored and who has access to it.

In the case of Sullys Hill, assistant professor Susan Ellis-Felege said a buffer zone will be maintained between the preserve and private land and the aircraft also will avoid the area around the visitor’s center.

Sullys Hill is about 1,600 acres although research will be focused in an 800-acre fenced-in area, which should keep the aircraft from crossing property lines.

“Our flights would be around just the fenced in part,” Ellis-Felege said. “We know that means we might miss individual animals but our goal is to stay within a core area.”

The aircraft will fly at altitudes no higher than 400 feet, but Milavetz said people won’t need to worry about being identified in video or pictures.

“From that height, you can barely tell if someone is a man or woman,” he said.

The data collected will be stored at UND, accessible only by authorized personnel such as project staff.

Any adverse events such as a crash, an aircraft flying off course and over private property or anything else that could compromise data or privacy requires a report to the committee, Milavetz said.

In the field

In addition to saving lives, Ellis-Felege said using UAS could improve the survey process by making it more efficient and uncover new application for this type of data collection.

“Recent advances in unmanned aircraft systems offer new opportunities to collect data that would be difficult or impossible to obtain by other means,” UND researchers wrote in their application to the committee.

Researchers will be testing an unmanned aircraft called a Draganflyer X4ES’s ability to capture, from various altitudes, images and videos of herds of large mammals such as bison, elk and white-tailed deer.

Future research could include smaller mammals, including members of the preserve’s prairie dog town.

Project staff also plans to test an infrared camera’s ability to detect and monitor habitat components such as vegetation.

Testing boundaries with wildlife accompanies testing the equipment.

Trial and error will determine how close researchers can get to animals with the aircraft before it may cause them to spook.

“That’s a question we have, ‘What is the safe minimum distance we can fly over these animals?’” Ellis-Felege said. “The smaller the organism that’s a target, the more likely they may think this is a raptor flying over them.”

The researchers expect to have a preliminary report on the project to the committee after three or so test flights.

Wildlife surveyor

UND’s wildlife survey project will involve a Draganflyer X4-ES, a small unmanned aircraft that can carry a gyro-stabilized camera.

The 3-foot wide, four-rotor aircraft can fly up to 500 feet above the ground for around 20 minutes.

Video from the aircraft can be viewed from a hand-held controller.

More info: Click here to read the UAS Research Compliance Committee Research Project Application.

Brandi Jewett
Brandi Jewett is an enterprise reporter for the Grand Forks Herald with beats focusing on northwest Minnesota, unmanned aircraft systems and East Grand Forks city government. Other positions she has held at the Herald include Grand Forks city government reporter, general assigment reporter and news intern. A native of Valley City, N.D., 24 years worth of winters haven't scared her out of the state yet. Follow her work at and on Twitter and Instagram: @brandijewett. Send tips and story ideas to 
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