Unmanned aircraft to survey wildlife habitat

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (AP) - Researchers in eastern Idaho plan to use unmanned robotic aircraft starting Sunday to get high-resolution digital images of sagebrush habitats.

"When we take ground measurements it's over a small area," said Janet Rachlow, an ecology professor at the University of Idaho. "But we are interested in scaling up what we learn about individual plants and animals to a large scale that is useful for land management and management of wildlife populations overall."

The aerial photos will also be used in a large study on pygmy rabbits, as well as to learn how animals react to temperature and predators.

Also participating in the project are Boise State University, Washington State University and the University of Florida, the Post Register reported.

The research team plans to be in Lemhi County for about two weeks with the unmanned flights going through June 23.

"The end goal is to understand what makes a good habitat for these animals," Rachlow said. "We have to have a better understanding of what is a good habitat if we are to help restore it after a wildfire or incursions of foreign plants."

The University of Idaho's participation is part of an effort to create a Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aerial Systems at the Center for Advanced Energy Studies in Idaho Falls. The unmanned aerial systems center, should it be created, will work toward finding ways to bring unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace.

A company called Advanced Aviation Solutions, a consulting company, is working with Idaho researchers to establish the center.

"We want to represent all the (unmanned air) research that is done for Idaho - water, agriculture, wildlife, ranching, reservoirs and more," company CEO Steve Edgar said in a news release.