Small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS) Program
The Vermont Association of Conservation Districts (VACD) aims to increase the implementation of conservation practices to reduce agricultural non-point source pollution, improve soil health and support farm viability by using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), or “drone” technology to expedite conservation planning, technical assistance and financial assistance processes. The VACD-UAV program aims to use UAV technology to aid planners, engineers, and wetland restoration staff to enhance efficiencies with their time spent in the field monitoring, inspecting, inventorying resources, and surveying.
UAV technology is multipurpose and can accommodate many project types to aid in real-time data delivery to stakeholders. VACD has been using this innovative technology to acquire up-to-date aerial imagery and elevation data quicker and cheaper when compared to contracting other entities. Conservation planners and engineers have been using LiDAR to aid in their planning and designs. Although this is a great resource, the flight dates range from 2013 to 2017. The UAV is easily able to capture up-to-date elevation data in landscapes that have changed over time, either from the weather or human intervention.
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Meet the Fleet:
Rachel Flyson, fondly named after biologist Rachel Carson, is a DJI Phantom 4 Pro V2.0. She collects RGB orthophotos, digital elevation and surface models, point clouds, contour lines, MP4 videos and oblique photos. For elevation surveys, she works with the TopCon GR-5, a survey grade GPS, to collect information on the ground control points horizontal and vertical location. In the past year she has enjoyed seeing wetlands, farmsteads, and crop fields and was excited she was able to help field staff with their conservation work.
Elizabeth (Izzy) Bazluke and Lauren Newman are the co-operators and founders of the VACD-UAV Program. Izzy and Lauren passed the FAA’s knowledge exam and background check in August 2020 to become FAA-certified Part-107 Remote Pilot in Command. VACD pilots follow all relevant rules, documentation, and policies required by the FAA. VACD initiated the UAV program in the Fall of 2020 and began test flights in the Spring of 2021.
The VACD-UAV project management team is composed of the two VACD FAA-certified pilots, the VACD Conservation Programs Manager, the VACD Executive Director, and the VACD Finance Manager. GIS and Natural Resources Planner Lauren Newman is the Project Manager. Pilots preform the bulk of the VACD-UAV pilot program operations, including developing program systems and forms, soliciting and planning projects, interfacing with conservation planners, flying projects, interpreting and sharing resulting data, delivering online and in-person presentations, and preparing program reports.
Current U.S. Department of Agriculture-Natural Resource Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS) drone policy is based upon rules and regulations from USDA, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), General Services Administration (GSA) and Congress. While USDA-NRCS is not permitted to own or operate UAV technology, it can partner with outside entities, like soil and water conservation districts, to operate drones on their behalf and in support of Farm Bill programs. VACD, functioning as the owner and operator of the UAV, annually enters into agreement with NRCS regarding the scope and scale of UAV activities in exchange for NRCS providing staff funding support, office storage space, and conservation project proposals. This VACD-NRCS program partnership is unique within USDA-NRCS and has received national recognition for its innovation.
Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG):
VACD received a Conservation Innovation Grant through USDA-NRCS to expand the sUAS program through the acquisition of a Real-Time Kinnematic (RTK) or Post-Processed Kinematic (PPK) enabled, enterprise drone. This UAV will be able to fly 300 acres on a single battery and handles better in winds, meaning data capture could occur for longer periods in more variable conditions, all without human intervention. RTK/PPK would eliminate the need for many ground control points onsite, allowing pilots to capture highly accurate data on larger areas with minimal upfront labor costs. Additionally, the UAV allows for camera/sensor interchangeability, such as a multispectral or thermal imaging.
The Conservation Innovation Grant will allow VACD and the USDA-NRCS partnership to expand upon its initial UAV Pilot Program with the addition of the enterprise UAV, enabling the partnership to better target and address resource concerns throughout the State of Vermont.
- Determine the value of UAV technology in all phases of the conservation planning process, including assessment, design, and monitoring.
- Determine the value of UAV technology in conservation planning in a variety of production contexts, including dairy/livestock, vegetables, orchards, and urban agriculture.
- Determine the value of UAV technology in conservation planning for a variety of conservation practices, including farmstead practices, agronomic practices, and riparian and wetland restoration.
- Increase the understanding and ability of NRCS, VACD and NRCD conservation planners to integrate UAV technology into the conservation planning process, including mobile tools.
- Increase the understanding and comfort level of agricultural producers regarding the utilization of UAV technology in the conservation planning process.
- Familiarize Conservation Districts and others who may be interested in establishing their own UAV program, with the requirements, processes, costs, and tools of such a program.