Monitoring ecological characteristics of a tallgrass prairie using an unmanned aerial vehicle

Ryan C. Blackburn, Nicholas A. Barber, Anna K. Farrell, Robert Buscaglia, Holly P. Jones

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Site-specific conditions, climate, and management decisions all dictate the establishment and composition of desired plant communities within grassland restorations. The uncertainty, complexity, and large size of grassland restorations necessitate monitoring plant communities across spatial and temporal scales. Remote sensing with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) may provide a tool to monitor restored plant communities at various scales, but many potential applications are still unknown. In a tallgrass prairie restoration located in Franklin Grove, IL, we used UAV-based multispectral imagery to assess the ability of spectral indices to predict ecological characteristics (plant community, plant traits, soil properties) in the summer of 2017. Using 19 sites, we calculated the moments of 26 vegetation indices and four spectral bands (green, red, red edge, near infrared). Models based on each moment and a model with all moments were estimated using ridge regression with model training based on a subset of 15 sites. Each tested for significant error reduction against a null model. We predicted mean graminoid cover, mean dead aboveground biomass, mean dry mass, and mean soil K with significant reductions in cross-validated root mean square error. Averaged coefficients determined from cross-validation of ridge regression models were used to develop a final predictive model of the four successfully predicted ecological characteristics. Graminoid cover and soil potassium were successfully predicted in one of the sites while the other two were not successfully predicted in any site. This study provides a path toward a new level of ease and precision in monitoring community dynamics of restored grasslands.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere13339
JournalRestoration Ecology
Issue numberS1
StatePublished - Apr 2021


  • drone
  • grassland restoration
  • remote sensing
  • ridge regression
  • unmanned aerial vehicle

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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