Assessing the impacts of canopy openness and flight parameters on detecting a sub-canopy tropical invasive plant using a small unmanned aerial system.
Small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) have great potential to facilitate the early detection and management of invasive plants. Here we show how very high-resolution optical imagery, collected from small consumer-grade multirotor UAS platform at altitudes of 30-120 m above ground level (agl), can be used to detect individual miconia (Miconia calvescens) plants in a highly invaded tropical rainforest environment on the island of Hawai'i. The central aim of this research was to determine how overstory vegetation cover, imagery resolution, and camera look-angle impact the aerial detection of known individual miconia plants. For our finest resolution imagery (1.37 cm ground sampling distance collected at 30 m agl), we obtained a 100% detection rate for sub-canopy plants with above-crown openness values >40% and a 69% detection rate for those with >20% openness. We were unable to detect any plants with <10% above crown openness. Detection rates progressively declined with coarser spatial resolution imagery, ending in a 0% detection rate for the 120 m agl flights (ground sampling distance of 5.31 cm). The addition of forward-looking oblique imagery improved detection rates for plants below overstory vegetation, though this effect decreased with increasing flight altitude. While dense overstory canopy cover, limited flight times, and visual line of sight regulations present formidable obstacles for detecting miconia and other invasive plant species, we show that sUAS platforms carrying optical sensors can be an effective component of an integrated management plan within challenging subcanopy forest environments.