A bird's eye view of Michigan's interdunal wetlands

Claire Gilbert has learned through her geography graduate courses that unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, can take you to places once nearly unreachable by traditional means. From a research perspective, this opens a world of opportunities for exploring unexamined landscapes and ecosystems, capturing never-before-seen images, and collecting data in a way that’s sustainable and safe for the environment.

Claire flying drone on campus

Claire Gilbert demonstrating her UAS piloting skills on campus.

With the help of a camera-mounted drone and direction from her advisor, Dr. Adam Mathews, assistant professor of geography, Gilbert is getting a bird’s eye view of Michigan’s interdunal wetlands at Ludington State Park. Working with Dr. Tiffany Schriever, assistant professor of biology, and her research group, Gilbert is collecting and analyzing aerial data to gain insights into the habitats that comprise these unique and fragile ecosystems. “Dr. Schriever’s research group is currently examining interdunal wetland biodiversity along Lake Michigan’s coast,” Gilbert says. “I will provide them with spatial analysis of wetland ponds, vegetation structures and macroinvertebrates (organisms that lack a spine and can be seen with the naked eye).”

The results of their collaborative research will be provided to Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources. “By gaining a better understanding of interdunal wetlands and ideal habitats for the organisms that live there, the Michigan DNR can create a plan to protect and preserve these rare ecosystems,” Gilbert says.

Gilbert is making multiple flights over the wetlands, collecting and georeferencing high resolution images that she will use to create an orthomosaic map and 3D visual of the landscape. She will use the maps to classify plant species within the ecosystems by their unique spectral signatures, before moving on to spatial analysis. “I will look at the physical characteristics of the landscape, including pond extent, depth and water composition, as well as vegetation density,” she says. “The spatial analysis will define the relationship between plant and macroinvertebrate species populations in the park’s landscape ecology.”

Gilbert says she was able to become certified as a remote UAS pilot – one who flies small unmanned aerial systems – through WMU’s certificate program in geospatial applications of UAVs. Being able to capture airborne imagery of the interdunal wetlands has led her to explore a new interest in biology. “I’ve had this incredible opportunity to work with Dr. Schriever’s lab and integrate the two disciplines,” Gilbert says. “Not only do I get to help the lab with their sampling field work, I’ve been introduced to a research community that might not otherwise work with geographers.”

View this story and more in the 2019 issue of WMU's Arts and Sciences Magazine.