Sustain Our Nation's Forests and Grasslands

Drone-gathered data helps sustain important shoreline habitats on Hiawatha National Forest

MICHIGAN – Nestled among three of the Great Lakes, Hiawatha National Forest contains 180 miles of coastline. Nearly all of Hiawatha’s Great Lakes shoreline is in pristine condition and is considered an important resource to protect. An ongoing partnership with Michigan Technological University’s Forest Resources and Environmental Sciences Department is allowing the Forest Service to use high-tech drone equipment to collect detailed data about those important shoreline habitats.

A Michigan Tech team just completed the second year of drone operations collecting high resolution imagery of existing natural communities and invasive plant populations. This project represents the first, official Unmanned Aerial Systems, or drone, operations on the Hiawatha National Forest.

In August 2019, flights were conducted in the eastern half of the Forest in including the Pointe Aux Chene Research Natural Area and the shoreline between the mouths of the Carp and Pine Rivers. One of the non-native species detected is a large, highly-invasive grass species known as Phragmites australis.

Phragmites creates tall, dense stands that crowd out native plants, degrade wildlife and fish habitat, block shoreline views, and reduce access for swimming, fishing, and hunting. The dense, dry plant material also poses a fire hazard. Phragmites is the tallest wetland grass in Michigan, growing upwards of 14 feet. Once established on a site, Phragmites is difficult to eliminate.

“The detailed information provided by the drone flights will aid in efforts to control and manage these detrimental plants,” said Jim Ozenberger, program manager for Hiawatha National Forest’s soils, water and landscape ecology programs. 

Michigan Tech University is currently processing the data which will be provided to the Hiawatha National Forest. The Forest Service is an active partner in several Upper Peninsula “cooperative invasive species management associations” working to minimize damage from invasive species on the Forest and surrounding lands.

“We found this to be a highly efficient and cost-effective way to collect this type of information,” said Ozenberger. Often, coastal areas of the Hiawatha are heavily vegetated, wet and difficult access challenges -- unless of course, you are a drone.  

Two men on a boat on a lake
Forest Service specialist Jim Ozenberger pilots the zodiac on Lake Huron, as Parth Bhatt, a PhD candidate at Michigan Tech’s School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science, collects training points for the imagery collected by the drone. USDA Forest Service photo.


Two men launching a drone
Parth Bhatt and Ben Miller (a Michigan Tech undergrad and UAS pilot) prepare to launch a drone near Pointe Aux Chene during the recent lidar project. USDA Forest Service photo.
Man preparing drone for flight
Parth Bhatt examines the lidar drone prior to launching. USDA Forest Service photo.