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Mohawk College offers Royal Botanical Gardens a bird’s eye view for conservation research project

Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) recently partnered with Mohawk College to explore how remotely piloted aircraft systems can advance ecosystem regeneration activities in Cootes Paradise Nature Sanctuary.

2BF65BA6-F784-48C0-99E9-1FD9931E6339Applied researchers from the Unmanned and Remote Sensing Innovation Centre (URSIC) at Mohawk College worked with RBG’s conservation team to collect images, video and LiDAR data using sensors mounted on remotely piloted aircraft (commonly known as drones). The visual data collected during the flights will now be used to assess the overall health of the ecosystem, including monitoring vegetation growth, tracking the impact of invasive species and monitoring watershed health.

Owned and managed by RBG, Cootes Paradise is the largest wetland at the western end of Lake Ontario. The lands contain one of the highest rates of biodiversity of plants per hectare in Canada and the highest biodiversity rate of plants in the region with 877 unique species. 

The research project marked the first time that RBG has used high-resolution imagery and thermal data to influence its ecosystem management practices. In the past, RBG used the aerial imagery periodically collected by various other organizations to help assess large-scale ecosystem recovery and develop management strategies. Since these images are collected for other purposes, however, they did not provide the timely and comprehensive data necessary to best support RBG’s conservation activities.

The team from Mohawk College, led by researcher Richard Borger, collected high-resolution images and LiDAR data of key areas of Cootes Paradise throughout the year. Following the flights, the research team, including five student researchers,  processed the information and generated orthographic imagery and LiDAR point clouds of the marsh for further analysis by RBG.

“We were pleased to put our expertise in remotely piloted aircraft systems to use and provide RBG with access to data that they have never had before,” says Richard Borger, the principal investigator on the project. “Having timely data collection at frequent intervals will result in a more informed response to ecosystem management.”

913A218F-69EB-428F-AF5C-1451722B2E7FThe research team from Mohawk College has considerable experience collecting photogrammetry and LiDAR data on vegetated sites. URSIC has completed flight operations for similar applications, including capturing LIDAR data for forest measurement and return-to-growth assessments, topographic mapping of heavily forested building sites, and training and support for emergency responders in search and rescue operations.

“The project helped us communicate and mitigate the negative impacts of the environmental challenges and help restore a part of Southern Ontario’s wetland ecosystem,” says Tys Theysmeyer, Head of Natural Lands for Royal Botanical Gardens. “We are grateful for the support of the Kenneth M. Molson Foundation and for the expertise available at Mohawk College that will help us improve our continuing efforts to protect this vital habitat.”

The 12-month project was supported by the Kenneth M. Molson Foundation, a private foundation that is dedicated to supporting research projects in aeronautical engineering education and research, aviation history and libraries, wildlife research, conservation, and habitat. The applied research collaboration with Mohawk College is part of RBG’s ongoing freshwater marsh restoration project known as Project Paradise.