Cleburne FFA

Using drones to survey land has become increasingly popular with ranchers around Texas. 

Jake Carroll, Raven Trammell and Mikayla Moore of Cleburne FFA discussed the pros and cons of using drones to survey land on Wednesday to the Cleburne Lions Club at the Cleburne Conference Center. 

Cleburne High School ag teacher Lana Trahern said they have teams of FFA students who participate in speech contests. The program’s ag issues team discussed how technology is changing, especially when it comes to agriculture and wildlife.

“As of right now, engineers are trying to find the most effective way to monitor our wildlife species and populations in an effort to make sure the balances are appropriate and stable,” Trammell said. “Drones are relatively a new technology advancement that is being utilized by wildlife ranchers and other wildlife personnel to get an intimate insight to what is really going on among the ecosystems and wildlife populations.” 

Carroll discussed the pros of using drone thermal technology, while Moore discussed the cons.

The words “effective” and “innovative” come to mind when using drone technology, Carroll said. 

“Informal data assessments show that there are numerous advantages to using drone technology as a survey method among conservational- and harvest-based operations,” he said. “Many landowners are part of the conservation effort that are designed to detect and promote the natural species found among specific areas.”

In addition, he said harvest-based ranches are involved in making sure that populations are stable and wildlife gender ratios are correctly proportioned. Landowners are required to give the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department their survey findings, he said. 

Landowners, biologists, conservationists and game wardens are using this data to govern regulations, Trammell said. 

“Surveys provide findings on all species and activities while some research is exclusive for a specific purpose,” she said. “The four approved methods are helicopter surveys, spotlight surveys, feeder count surveys and trail count surveys.”

Drones can provide 100 percent coverage, Carroll said. 

“Thanks to thermal sensors, they are able to detect heat that is detected from all species,” he said. “The ability to detect body heat prevents missing animals that may try to hide. With the precise imaging ability, drone operators are able to distinguish specific species and in some cases can determine the gender ratio of those among them.”

The words “exclusive” and “wavering” come to mind when it comes to using drone technology, Moore said. There are claims that there are no clear reviews or formally supported university data for drone technology, she said.

“Since the first drone company opened in 2016, this information has slowly but steadily appeared,” she said. “Generally, clients are only going to spend money on a resource that has already been in place, approved and can provide sufficient data in getting comfortable ratings. It can take years to research and prove this method to be a reputable database.”

The four original survey methods have been in place for many years, she said, and provide clear information.

“When data was collected in different areas regarding these surveys, up to 64 percent chose helicopter surveys as the best survey method,” she said. “Top clients have enjoyed helicopter surveys and support them as they can go up and above and gain aerial insight to what has occurred on the land that they own or manage. Helicopter surveys require two people to be on flight to gather data.” 

Sometimes when clients use drones, she said data may be lost. At least with the presence of humans in a helicopter, the survey is not a total loss, she said. 

Drones are significantly safer than helicopters, Carroll said. 

“With a drone, the machine is the only thing in the air, and as Mikayla stated on a helicopter at least two bodies are present,” he said. “In the tragic event of a crash, at least we’re talking about replacing equipment and not people.”

There have been 13 helicopter crashes in Texas this year, he said. Drones provide actual footage the human eye may miss, he said. 

When landowners are looking to survey their land, Moore said they are looking for something that’s cost-effective. The four original survey methods cost about $500, with the drone method costing about $1,000, she said.  

“Rain, wind and humidity can all negatively affect a sensitive thermal lens, which results in lost time as you wait for the conditions to be drone suitable,” she said. 

Drones are un-intrusive, Carroll said.

“The other methods cause destruction, which often leads to animals resorting to hiding, especially when there is dense cover available,” he said. “Again, drones provide actual footage that can be viewed over and over, which will always provide accurate insight as opposed to the human eye.”

Drones surveys must be done by a professional, Moore said, which could cost more money and time. 

“The general public cannot conduct a legal drone survey, therefore a professional drone operator must be hired,” she said. “If one wanted to become certified to be able to conduct their own drone survey, they would be looking at a start-up cost of $30,000, four different licenses and one aeronautical test.”

To recap, Carroll said drones are cutting edge and can provide a 100 percent coverage area to provide a safer solution compared to the other survey methods.

On the other hand, Moore said drones are still fairly new and can cause a loss in data and must be performed in ideal weather conditions.

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