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Scientists love drones. They provide a bird’s-eye view of our planet’s nooks and crannies at a resolution that satellites can’t match and at a price even they can afford.

Take the doughty scientists who count royal penguins at Macquarie Island in the Southern Ocean. Each summer when the penguins arrived to breed, researchers had to pull on boots, brave the ferocious weather and count them.

Jarrod Hodgson, a drone expert at the University of Adelaide, helped them out by mounting a powerful SLR camera on a fixed-wing “FX79” drone flown at 125 metres above the ground. The drone isn’t just quicker; it’s an order of magnitude more precise than ground-based counts.

Credit: Monash University / Jarrod Hodgson

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Revealing bettongs

Feral cats and foxes nearly wiped out bettongs on the Australian mainland. They’ve been reintroduced to South Australia within a fenced zone called the Arid Recovery Reserve at Roxby Downs. But are they thriving? Hard to say – the desert-dwelling marsupials hide out all day in burrows.

Send in the drones. Hodgson and his colleagues at the University of Adelaide’s Unmanned Research Aircraft Facility (URAF) are testing whether drones can provide a surrogate measure for bettong numbers. Using drone snapshots, they measure the number of entrances to the burrows (the heavily shadowed holes in the ground visible) as well as the general soil disturbance around the site.

Credit: URAF.org / University of Adelaide

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Colour-coded wheat

It’s tough growing wheat in salty soil. In this field trial, drones are helping scientists evaluate which varieties do best.

Vigorously growing foliage reflects infrared light (shorter wavelengths are absorbed by photosynthesis). Here a drone uses a multispectral imager to spot the best-performing plants.

In the top three rows of the image, infrared light is depicted in shades of red. The brightest plots contain the most vigorously growing plants.

In the middle five rows, the researchers used a combination of red and near-infrared wavelengths to measure plant health. On this grey scale, brighter is healthier.

In the bottom four rows, a computer gave each plot an overall colour-coded score of plant performance; bright green is best, followed by yellow, orange and red.

Credit: GRDC Salinity Project / Australian Grain Technologies /Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics / Plant Transport and Signalling Group / Ramesh Raja Segaran / URAF.org / University of Adelaide

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A walk in the woods

For forestry researchers, a two-dimensional view of a forest canopy is not enough. They need to see what’s happening in the understory to measure the performance of the forest...

Credit: Conservation International / Pix4D / Ramesh Raja Segaran / URAF.org / The University of Adelaide

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... Now they can take a virtual stroll through a forest, thanks to the University of Adelaide’s URAF team. A drone flies a grid-like path across the landscape and software stitches together the still shots to create a 3D model.

Hodgson and his colleagues are empowering researchers to use drones by running training courses. This image, of a dry forest on Grand Terre island, New Caledonia, was “planned and executed entirely by course participants – demonstrating the accessibility of low-cost UAV technology”.

Credit: Conservation International / Pix4D / Ramesh Raja Segaran / URAF.org / The University of Adelaide