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Hungry for more stories on science, culture and technology?Check out Brain Food: Insights and Discoveries from Northern Arizona. From ground breaking scientific research to global music projects, Brain Food profiles some of the unique projects happening in the region and the interesting people behind them. While there are no new episodes of Brain Food, we will continue to maintain the archive here.

Brain Food: The Octocopter Helps Monitor Forest Health

KNAU/Bonnie Stevens

An 8-armed drone that looks like a robotic black spider will soon be hovering over northern Arizona's ponderosa pine forests.

The one-of-a-kind Octocopter will capture 3-D, high resolution, color images of plants and geologic features to inform land managers of changes or impacts to the landscape. Teki Sankey is a remote sensing ecologist at Northern Arizona University and says, "Using the imaging sensors on the Octocopter, I can image a treated forest patch, for example, and I can see individual tree canopies with which I can estimate canopy cover and tree density. Then I can see how those things are impacting snow distribution below the canopies and how that feeds into our ground water budget, for example."

Sankey says the cutting edge Octocopter technology can measure very specific results of tree thinning and burning projects. That information will help managers plan for - and monitor - the nation's largest forest health project: The Four Forest Restoration Initiative.

Teki Sankey says the Octocopter will help scientists be able to detect the optimum, or ideal tree density after a forest stand has been treated. "If you were concerned about ground water recharge, she says, "or if you were concerned about how could I maximize the amount of snow that we receive on the ground, I will be able to estimate exactly what kind of a tree density would be ideal for that."

The Octocopter will also be used to survey the sand dunes on the Paria Plateau to track their movement and determine how much sediment ends up in the Colorado River.