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DNR explores the uses of drone technology

This drone view captures a magnificant sunrise over Sunset Lake. (Bob McCarthy photo)
Michigan Department of Natural Resources
LANSING — Wildlife biologists from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources were looking for a bear.
Not just any bear. They were in search of a sow that had previously been used as a surrogate to raise orphaned cubs. But she had broken and slipped out of her radio collar.
So, they took advantage of one of the DNR’s newest programs and called for a drone.
“We know the general area where she dens, kind of this 40-acre spot,” said Kevin Jacobs, aviation manager for the DNR. “But there is a lot of heavy cover. We put a thermal camera on there and got a really good heat image that was the right size on the ground.”
Finding a surrogate mom for bear cubs is just one way that the DNR uses drones – often referred to as UAV, or unmanned aerial vehicles. Licensed DNR staffers also use the pint-sized choppers equipped with cameras to help manage and promote state forests, parks, wildlife and fishing.
The drone program, based in the department’s Forest Resources Division, has been expanding since it started with just three vehicles in 2016.
“The DNR entered this really at the front half of the drone industry. As far as commercial viability, we thought it was important to be at the head not at the tail,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs and DNR resource analyst Nick Dohm have shepherded the program since its beginning, paving the way for thoughtful growth.
“We didn’t want to get carried away at first,” Dohm said. “We’ve got good control over what the program is, what we’re looking for, where we want to grow in the future. We’ve been able to look at what worked and what didn’t work so far, and we can expand on that a little further.”
By the middle of 2017, the DNR program had three drones and a certificate of authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration. It’s the second Michigan agency to receive a certificate, after the Michigan State Police.
“At that point, it was just sort of trial and error, ‘show me what these things can do,’” Dohm said. “Over time we have built up just how useful they are for the department.”
They can do a lot.

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