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Reflecting on a Season as a Drone Technician: Navigating Challenges, Embracing Growth, and Building Memories

Dec 13, 2023

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The Monarch Joint Venture's (MJV) Remote Sensing Program is revolutionizing the pollinator conservation field with drone technology. Behind the scenes, dedicated drone technicians navigate the complexities of surveying private working lands enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and public US Fish & Wildlife Service lands in the Midwest. Their role spans from quantifying the density of vital milkweed and pollinator-friendly plants to managing logistics and contributing to data processing—an essential part of MJV's goal to collect large-scale data crucial for monarch butterfly preservation.

The heart of this initiative lies in cutting-edge drone technology, enabling efficient surveys and precise monitoring of milkweed populations across vast landscapes. Supported by machine learning algorithms, the collected data becomes a beacon of hope for monarch conservation. Continued backing for MJV ensures the expansion of innovative programs, ultimately contributing to informed conservation decisions that safeguard monarch butterflies and their habitats. Together, through sustained support, we can propel monarch conservation to new heights and secure a vibrant future for these iconic creatures.

2023 was the MJV’s first year deploying drone technicians to survey common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). Our talented drone technicians, Josiah Velner and Luis Osorio, excelled through all the beta-testing and unforeseen challenges. In our most recent blog, Luis and Josiah share a glimpse into their first field season through their experiences as Conservation Corp of Minnesota and Iowa members with MJV. Below, Luis and Josiah share a glimpse into their first field season.

Reflections from Luis Osorio

My day begins promptly at 7:30 am, fueled by a hearty breakfast, setting the tone for the day's adventure. The road awaits, often leading to an hour-long drive to reach the designated survey site. As I arrive, my initial task is a thorough walkthrough, scanning the area for potential obstacles that could impede the drone's flight.

Survey conditions become a priority – wind speed, temperature, humidity, and visibility are meticulously assessed. Once conditions permit, an informative sign is set up to alert the public to the ongoing remote sensing survey at the Fish & Wildlife Service site. Crafting a detailed flight plan follows, incorporating crucial elements like flight time, altitude, speed, and survey coverage stored in a comprehensive flight log.

With preparations complete, the drone takes its place on the launch pad, signaling the commencement of the mission. The autonomous flight unfolds, collecting valuable data within predetermined parameters. Upon completion, I guide the drone back to the launch pad, ensuring a safe and controlled landing. This process repeats across different sections of the site, with breaks around noon for lunch and drone battery charging.

The field season introduces its share of challenges – long drives, high temperatures, traversing dense grass prairies, and navigating unpredictable weather. Technical hiccups, including a malfunctioning SD card and field vehicles requiring mechanical assistance, add layers of complexity.

Adaptations become second nature – breaks during long drives for refreshments and staying alert, hydration and pauses to combat scorching temperatures, troubleshooting technical issues with timely discussions with my supervisor, and having a backup plan for unfavorable weather conditions, redirecting efforts to office work for the day.

Lessons learned become guiding principles – preparation for the unexpected and embracing mistakes as part of the learning process. Each challenge becomes a stepping stone for growth, fostering resilience in the face of unforeseen circumstances.

Amidst the challenges, there are moments of joy – capturing photos and appreciating nature during fieldwork and the simple pleasures of interacting with landowners and their pets, from dogs and cats to the occasional goat.

Professionally and personally, my time with Monarch Joint Venture has been transformative. Developing GIS skills, enhancing communication abilities, and building connections within and outside the organization have contributed to my growth. The impact of the remote sensing program is tangible, contributing to the assessment of milkweed abundance for the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Reflecting on this experience, working at MJV has been gratifying and filled with purpose and camaraderie. The diverse experiences have been an invaluable source of education.

Looking ahead, my goal is to continue growing professionally within the MJV. Believing in the organization's mission, I aspire to contribute to the conservation of monarch butterflies and other pollinators. Advancing future technologies for more effective conservation efforts is a journey I eagerly anticipate. The day may end, but the journey continues, propelled by passion and dedication.

Reflections from Josiah Velner

Another day in the Midwest summer as a remote sensing technician with Monarch Joint Venture. The day starts at our Airbnb, where I prepare breakfast and pore over maps, meticulously planning the drone surveys.

Reaching out to the first landowner, I secure their consent with a data release waiver, establishing a connection through a friendly chat. Meeting these diverse landowners adds an exciting element to each day.

The initial challenges of our remote sensing program revolved around assisting in the AI learning Polli app, our automated flight application. As with any new program, the developmental stages presented operational quirks that demanded immediate troubleshooting. Navigating these technical intricacies in real time was undoubtedly a learning curve, but it strengthened our problem-solving skills and deepened our understanding of potential improvements.

Overcoming these challenges became a pivotal experience, not only resolving immediate issues but also positioning us for streamlined operations in subsequent seasons. The collective effort invested in addressing hurdles showcased the resilience of the team and the adaptability of our approach.

Amidst the challenges, there were unexpected joys. Traveling with Luis in Iowa brought moments of exploration, from new restaurants to witnessing Bison roam freely at Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge. Our Airbnb stay had an amusing surprise – a friendly cat that dropped by and enjoyed some leftover BBQ. These experiences added a touch of joy to our work, making the journey memorable beyond the surveys.

Reflecting on personal growth, I've gained confidence in operating drones independently – a skill I never anticipated acquiring. Beyond technical proficiency, organizing field operations, preparing maps, and scheduling tasks have honed my ability to work autonomously. The experience instilled self-reliance and adaptability, crucial skills in remote settings.

In the first field season, my contributions laid a strong foundation for Monarch Joint Venture's future endeavors. From providing feedback on the Polli app to developing algorithms for identifying milkweed, each step advanced the understanding and preservation of important habitats for monarch butterflies.

Being part of this pioneering initiative has been enlightening and inspiring. The intersection of cutting-edge technology and conservation efforts underscores the importance of our work in preserving biodiversity. The journey has been a blend of challenges, growth, and moments of joy, shaping an unforgettable experience.

Looking ahead, my aspirations within Monarch Joint Venture involve growing within the Remote Sensing Program. Advancing in this field, training others in similar survey methods, and expanding the program's reach align with my commitment to contribute practically and impactfully to the organization's mission. The journey continues, fueled by a passion for conservation and a commitment to making a difference.

A Glimpse into Luis and Josiah's Field Season