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Drones, Robotic Rovers and Citizen Scientists Join Forces to Sample a Lake’s Biodiversity

“BioBlitz” hardware developers test new environmental tools above, on and under a tidal lagoon


Lake Merritt is a tidal lagoon in the heart of Oakland, Calif. The oldest wildlife refuge in the U.S., it is home to numerous birds and shares many marine species with nearby San Francisco Bay. Even sea otters occasionally visit. Last weekend the Lake Merritt BioBlitz set out to explore this rich biodiversity and got a taste of the future of citizen science. Supported by iNaturalist, the California Academy of Sciences, Wild Oakland and the Oakland Museum of California, participants armed with smartphones photographed plants and animals from all around the lake. The goal of the BioBlitz is to use volunteers to count the species living around Lake Merritt. Accurate species counts allow scientists to assess the lake’s health and determine how well current recovery programs are working.

Scientists and naturalists were on hand to help identify species and educate volunteers. Autonomous drones buzzed overhead, landing gracefully to collect water quality measurements. Remotely operated submersibles surveyed the lake bottom, documenting the lagoon’s aquatic diversity. These high-tech tools joined a team of more than 150 local citizen scientists.

Bioblitzes have a long track record in citizen science, but what set Lake Merritt’s survey apart was the integration of autonomous drones and underwater robots into the sampling effort. Ken McGary of Nerds for Nature, another organization sponsoring the Bioblitz, brought together Bay Area technology developers and nature enthusiasts, including drone designer Sean Headrick and OpenROV (open-source remotely operated vehicle) developers David Lang and Eric Stackpole  (co-founders of OpenROV), to develop novel ways to amass environmental data.

The drone, an AeroTestra HUGO multirotor aircraft, eschews the conventional skeletal quadrotor frame for a tough exoskeleton that, according to Headrick, makes the drone both lighter and more durable, allowing it to carry a greater payload in harsher conditions. The drone is watertight and able to land on and take off from water. Outfitted with an array of water quality sensors, including those for temperature and pH, HUGO cruised across Lake Merritt, repeatedly alighting on the surface to collect data about the lake’s condition.

Headrick noted that because their flight path is preprogrammed, autonomous drones have one big advantage in these types of applications: they can consistently sample the exact same location on repeat visits. In this way they can begin to establish a long-term data set for Lake Merritt. Although this initial trial revealed numerous challenges involved in launching and landing a drone on water, Headrick considered the recent bioblitz a success.

Complementing the autonomous drone flying overhead was the OpenROV, capable of diving deep into the lake to investigate otherwise inaccessible areas. The OpenROV team, including Stackpole and Matt Valancy of OpenROV, spent the morning surrounded by children and adults eager to try their hand piloting one of two tiny robots the scientists were deploying. Although the visibility was poor, the OpenROV was able to prowl the bottom of Lake Merritt and send video back to an excited citizen scientists.

With the robots and drones packed up by noon, the BioBlitz volunteers continued to sample mud flats, botanical gardens and the grounds around the refuge. Participants uploaded more than 1,000 observations to the iNaturalist Web site, including some made by the OpenROV—the first robot-based BioBlitz samples—and identified as many as 200 species. According to iNaturalist developer Ken-ichi Ueda, the Lake Merritt BioBlitz was among the largest and best organized such event in which he had participated. The drones and robots were a huge draw, attracting even more attendees than would typically be expected, Ueda says.

Integrating autonomous and robotic vehicles into bioblitzes is an important step in expanding the contribution of nonscientists to our understanding of the natural world. The Lake Merritt event demonstrated that the land, sea and sky present no barriers to a dedicated group of enthusiastic citizens interested in learning about their local ecosystems.

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