Integrating drone imagery with existing rangeland monitoring programs

Jeffrey K. Gillan, Jason W. Karl, Willem J.D. van Leeuwen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Scopus citations


The recent availability of small and low-cost sensor carrying unmanned aerial systems (UAS, commonly known as drones) coupled with advances in image processing software (i.e., structure from motion photogrammetry) has made drone-collected imagery a potentially valuable tool for rangeland inventory and monitoring. Drone-imagery methods can observe larger extents to estimate indicators at landscape scales with higher confidence than traditional field sampling. They also have the potential to replace field methods in some instances and enable the development of indicators not measurable from the ground. Much research has already demonstrated that several quantitative rangeland indicators can be estimated from high-resolution imagery. Developing a suite of monitoring methods that are useful for supporting management decisions (e.g., repeatable, cost-effective, and validated against field methods) will require additional exploration to develop best practices for image acquisition and analytical workflows that can efficiently estimate multiple indicators. We embedded with a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) field monitoring crew in Northern California, USA to compare field-measured and imagery-derived indicator values and to evaluate the logistics of using small UAS within the framework of an existing monitoring program. The unified workflow we developed to measure fractional cover, canopy gaps, and vegetation height was specific for the sagebrush steppe, an ecosystem that is common in other BLM managed lands. The correspondence between imagery and field methods yielded encouraging agreement while revealing systematic differences between the methods. Workflow best practices for producing repeatable rangeland indicators is likely to vary by vegetation composition and phenology. An online space dedicated to sharing imagery-based workflows could spur collaboration among researchers and quicken the pace of integrating drone-imagery data within adaptive management of rangelands. Though drone-imagery methods are not likely to replace most field methods in large monitoring programs, they could be a valuable enhancement for pressing local management needs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number269
JournalEnvironmental Monitoring and Assessment
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 1 2020


  • Adaptive management
  • Drone
  • Ecological inventory and monitoring
  • Rangelands
  • Remote sensing
  • Unmanned aerial system

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Environmental Science
  • Pollution
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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