Improving Rangeland Monitoring and Assessment: Integrating Remote Sensing, GIS, and Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems


This research was conducted as part of a doctoral program and has been completed

Dissertation Abstract

Creeping environmental changes are impacting some of the largest remaining intact parcels of sagebrush steppe ecosystems in the western United States, creating major problems for land managers. The INL Site, located in southeastern Idaho, is part of the sagebrush steppe ecosystem, one of the largest ecosystems on the continent. Scientists at the INL Site and the University of Idaho have integrated existing field and remotely sensed data with geographic information systems technology to analyze how recent fires on the INL Site have influenced the current distribution of terrestrial vegetation. Three vegetation mapping and classification systems were used to evaluate the changes in vegetation caused by fires between 1994 and 2003. Approximately 24 percent of the sagebrush steppe community on the INL Site was altered by fire, mostly over a 5-year period. There were notable differences between methods, especially for juniper woodland and grasslands. The Anderson system (Anderson et al. 1996) was superior for representing the landscape because it includes playa/bare ground/disturbed area and sagebrush steppe on lava as vegetation categories. This study found that assessing existing data sets is useful for quantifying fire impacts and should be helpful in future fire and land use planning. The evaluation identified that data from remote sensing technologies is not currently of sufficient quality to assess the percentage of cover. To fill this need, an approach was designed using both helicopter and fixed wing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and image processing software to evaluate six cover types on field plots located on the INL Site. The helicopter UAV provided the best system compared against field sampling, but is more dangerous and has spatial coverage limitations. It was reasonably accurate for dead shrubs and was very good in assessing percentage of bare ground, litter and grasses; accuracy for litter and shrubs is questionable. The fixed wing system proved to be feasible and can collect imagery for very large areas in a short period of time. It was accurate for bare ground and grasses. Both UAV systems have limitations, but these will be reduced as the technology advances. In both cases, the UAV systems collected data at a much faster rate than possible on the ground. The study concluded that improvements in automating the image processing efforts would greatly improve use of the technology. In the near future, UAV technology may revolutionize rangeland monitoring in the same way GPS have affected navigation while conducting field activities.

Investigators and Affiliations

Robert P. Breckenridge, Manager and Graduate Student, Environmental Stewardship and Water Management Department, BEA, Idaho Falls, Idaho, and Environmental Science Department University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho

Maxine Dakins, Associate Professor, Environmental Sciences, University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho

Steven Bunting, Professor, Department of Rangeland Ecology and Management, University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho

Lee Vierling, Associate Professor, Department of Rangeland Ecology and Management, University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho

Jerry Harbour, Manager, National Training Center, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Funding Sources

United States Department of Energy, Idaho Operations Office


Anderson, J.E., K.T. Ruppel, J.M. Glennon, K.E. Holte and R.C. Rope. 1996. Plant Communities, Ethnoecology, and Flora of the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory. Environmental Surveillance, Education, and Research Report, ESRF-005.

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