National Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Project Office

National Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Project Office
Sand Hill Crane Population Estimates

The Department of the Interior (DOI) conducted the first small Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) mission using the Raven RQ-11A UAS from March 19-24, 2011, at Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge near Monte Vista, Colorado. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) utilized the Raven RQ-11A UAS in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to determine the feasibility of using an UAS to survey Sandhill Cranes to derive methodology for estimating population surveys. This mission was the first operation conducted by the DOI in National Airspace System (NAS) using the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) Certificate of Authorization (COA) process.

Sandhill Cranes are migratory birds that travel from Texas to Idaho (and as far as Siberia) annually. The Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge plays a key role for the greater Sandhill Crane species serving as a stopover point for roosting cranes during migration. Traditionally, Sandhill Crane population surveys were conducted using fixed-wing aircraft, placing both birds and staff at risk of mid-air collisions, or ground-count methods where biologists in the field attempt to enumerate the birds with sectional surveys.

The objective of this proof of concept operation was to determine if the Raven's sensor package was capable of picking up the cranes thermal signatures. Concerns regarding the cranes behavior to the Raven UAS were to be determined and addressed depending on findings. The behavior report of the cranes reactions to the UAS varied greatly on the time of day, and the type of environment the bird was actively utilizing (i.e. roosting, feeding, or loafing).

Many milestones were reached during this project, notably, the first approved UAS flight in the NAS for the Department of the Interior. Special thanks for the collaboration efforts across the bureaus include, USGS, USFWS, and the Aviation Management Directorate (AMD).

Mission results: Successfully established the first FAA approved COA for USGS Raven A night flights, determined that flights at night during periods of roosting were the most productive and least disruptive and determined that using UAS thermal detection provided an acceptable population count.

For full project description and findings, see Sandhill Crane Population Surveys Information Sheet

FWS/USGS Using Military Technology to Track Sandhill Cranes - KCNC CBS 4 Denver, March 2012
Unmanned Aircraft Used for Bird Tally -, March 2012
AUSVI Magazine Article June 2011
EI Journal Article September/October 2011
Monte Vista Refuge's Pilot-less Project to Survey Cranes -, November 2011
Using Ravens to Count Cranes - Fish & Wildlife News Fall 2011 -, November 2011
Cranes and Drones: Strange Airfellows? -
Mission Poster
Mission Photos and Video

Sandhill Cranes Raven Infra-red Thermal Imagery of Roost
A Sandhill Crane dances in courtship. Raven A Infra-Red Thermal Imagery of roost, black is hot,
Cranes are white against the warm-water roost, taken
6:39 am 3/24/11.

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