MERI shows off state of the art drone used for research

BY Michael Hill, Correspondent |

A whizzing drone is the newest gadget for the Meadowlands Environmental Research Institute (MERI) and scientists were eager to show it off. They sent their state of the art drone hovering over the vast 9,000 acres of protected wetlands in the foreground of the Manhattan skyline.

“We are in the business of developing new sensors for it, we have more control on that. We can use it to acquire samples, to send it to collect the water samples somewhere or to mark a specific space. There are many, many dimensions of drones. It’s just starting and we want to be on the forefront of it,” said MERI Director Francisco Artigas.

Artigas, who is also an associate professor at Rutgers, says the drone will determine elevation, measure volume and capture stunning images and videos of life in the Meadowlands, where millions of humans pass through on a major highway and commuter trains.

“The predecessor to this drone was a big red balloon where we tethered, hung a camera and we took pictures. There was no way to control it. It just took pictures until the card was full,” said Artigas.

The predecessor to MERI’s new drone, used to capture aerial images of the Meadowlands. Photo credit: Meadowlands Environmental Research Institute


So, how much better is the drone compared to the tethered balloon?

“Well, there’s really no comparison,” said Artigas, “A tethered balloon, it would take all day to acquire this site, for example, by chance. You never knew you were taking the right pictures, it was just how the wind was blowing and so forth. With this drone, the trajectory, and the photography and videography, that the drone will capture, as you will see today, is all programmed ahead of time. There’s no surprises, so it’s very effective time wise. Very effective.”

The institute flies the drone when weather permits, especially on beautiful, sunny days, to survey an area that’s richly full of flora and fauna.

The new drone used by MERI is much more efficient with the ability to be programmed ahead of time.

“We have about 200 species of bees, of native bees, so it’s an incredibly high biodiversity site in terms of insects. Not to speak of birds also, we have above 200 species of birds that use this area, that are permanent here or during their migration use this area. We have mammals, an abundance of fish that have been coming back. Some of the iconic species, the bald eagle is back, the fishing eagle, the osprey is back,” said Artigas.

From above, the drone can see more than animals.

“We see the native vegetation and the invasive plants and all the fractioning of the system after decades of human intervention. All these features are studied and put together into videography and photography for decision making.”

The demonstration on Friday focused on a salicornia species.

“It’s a salt-tolerant species that lives here and has been able to survive even with all the development. We’re very interested in promoting these species and one way is to understand where it is right now, what kind of habitat does it favor and where can we find other places where we can promote this native species,” Artigas continued.

The institute says it has detailed maps of what’s in every property, including tons of details both the state and federal governments use to set priorities and determine development.

When asked if land use is dependent on the research to protect the lands, Artigas replied, “It’s a very valuable piece of information that it is used in the decision process.”

A process that’s now enhanced through technology that mimics nature and a bird’s eye.