August 15, 2020

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A Multi-Sensor Unoccupied Aerial System Improves Characterization of Vegetation Composition and Canopy Properties in the Arctic Tundra

Novel multi-sensor drone imagery enhances our understanding of the spatial patterns of Arctic vegetation.

The Science

Climate change is impacting the health and distribution of global vegetation. While various satellite and airborne platforms have been used to monitor vegetation changes over space and time, the lower resolution of these platforms limits their utility to identify fine-scale patterns and properties of plants, particularly in the Arctic, which is characterized by high spatial heterogeneity. Recently, scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory have adopted the use of unoccupied aerial systems (UASs) to provide high-resolution monitoring of vegetation dynamics through the Next Generation Ecosystem Experiment (NGEE)-Arctic. The spatial details provided by UASs improve understanding of plant responses to their environment, thereby enabling better prediction of how climate change will impact terrestrial ecosystems.

The Impact

Arctic vegetation composition, structure, and function has been significantly altered by climate change. Most current remote sensing is insufficient for characterizing the fine-scale patterns of Arctic plants that are needed by computer models to predict vegetation dynamics under different climatic conditions. The Osprey multi-sensor UAS platform was designed to provide the high-resolution spatial details (i.e. centimeter-scale resolution) necessary for studying the patterns of vegetation across Arctic landscapes. Using Osprey has helped to identify the critical links between vegetation properties and environmental conditions that enable the improved simulation of plants under future climate change, particularly in Arctic ecosystems.


Unoccupied Aerial Systems (UASs) fill a critical gap in the monitoring of ecosystems by providing very-high-resolution observations. They can be deployed in remote areas with lower effort than other airborne systems, and can collect data on-demand under different conditions. This study leveraged a novel UAS platform designed to collect fine-detail information on Arctic plant structure and functional properties. The researchers show how the use of the multi-sensor platform was effective at the fine-scale mapping of vegetation patterns, properties, and health. The investigators also found that taller Arctic shrubs regulate the patterns of surface temperature and plant species composition and that these patterns could be mapped in fine-detail with a UAS. Leveraging these platforms will allow scientists to understand the key features of Artic plants that facilitate acclimation to their environment, necessary information for modeling plants under future climate conditions.

Principal Investigator

Shawn Serbin
Brookhaven National Laboratory

Program Manager

Daniel Stover
U.S. Department of Energy, Biological and Environmental Research (SC-33)
Environmental System Science


This work, the associated field data, and UAS collection campaigns were supported by the Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments in the Arctic (NGEE-Arctic) project that is supported by the Office of Biological and Environmental Research in the Department of Energy, Office of Science, and through the United States Department of Energy contract No. DE-SC0012704 to Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Related Links


Yang, D., R. Meng, B. D. Morrison, and A. McMahon, et al. "A multi-sensor unoccupied aerial system improves characterization of vegetation composition and canopy properties in the Arctic tundra". Remote Sensing 16 (16), 2638  (2020).