UT Dallas Magazine

Drones in Rainforest Track Impact

Dr. Anthony Cummings, assistant professor of geospatial information sciences, shared an unconventional idea last year with leaders of an indigenous community in Guyana that could help the community conserve the land its people have lived on for thousands of years.

Cummings wanted to use drones to capture images of the Makushi people’s Amazon rainforest farmland. The idea he proposed — to track and study how changes on their farming plots affect the ecosystem and wildlife over time — would require more than just getting permission. It would be dependent on the community’s help to build and fly the drones.

Cummings, who is from Guyana, had already built friendships with Makushi farmers while conducting other research on the ecosystem there. He reasoned that technology and scientific methods could help them better manage their resources and provide data needed to participate in programs that provide financial incentives for avoiding deforestation.

The Makushis have internet access, cellphones and electricity generated through solar panels, but drones were something new. Cummings wanted to ensure that they worked together to develop a method for collecting data that respects the Makushi way of life.

Community leaders agreed to fly the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) once a month and send the data to Cummings.

Next came training the residents how to maintain and reassemble the drones in case anything went wrong.

“We showed them a video, put the parts on the table and within eight hours we had two UAVs in our hands,” Cummings said. “They built the UAVs in the time it takes me to put one together.”

Flying their first mission “was such an exciting moment,” Cummings said. “Everyone came to see it. They had a blast. I did too.”

The images started coming in to UT Dallas last fall, where they were reviewed by a graduate GIS student. Cummings says the project has worked so well in helping the community members sustain their livelihoods that he hopes to expand. Guyana has more than 100 Amerindian communities and they represent the fastest-growing population in that nation.

Dr. Anthony Cummings (at computer) in Guyana.