maanantai 29. syyskuuta 2014

A New Perspective

Ask most people in Finland about Metsähallitus and they will tell you about timber production, forest management and national parks. Over the past 15 years, several marine national parks have also been set up, with five regional marine biologists responsible for collecting underwater data on habitats and vegetation along the entire coastline, as well as the conservation of areas shown to be highly biodiverse.

Korpoström from the air. With clear water it is possible to see the vegetation zones along the shoreline even from the air. Photo: Kevin O'Brien.

With time, the number of boats, divers and the array of technology used to work underwater, such as diving gear, waterproof still and video cameras, continue to increase. As a result, there is an ever increasing amount of photos and videos available, which can be spread to the public through exhibitions and social media channels, such as Facebook and Youtube. In this way, a new perspective of the fascinating underwater world of the Finnish coastline, its habitats, plant and animal species, as well as the role of Metsähallitus in its discovery and conservation can be shared with people who do not dive or snorkel. Although the primary function of our work is to map underwater habitats for marine planning and conservation, we also hope that such efforts will help to inspire the general public, particularly young people, to take more interest in their natural heritage.

The original copter. Propeller guards and a GoPro Hero2 camera. Photo: Kevin O'Brien. 

With the advent of electric motor technology, a new tool is now available to researchers to map the landscape and provide a fresh perspective, i.e. the remote-controlled helicopter, more commonly known as a drone or UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle). Metsähallitus owns its own hexacopter (six rotors) and already it has been widely used around Finland to map forest areas and to give a birds-eye view previously unavailable unless you hired an aeroplane. The biggest advantage of the copter is that it allows much more manoeuverability and can even be modified so that an onboard camera can transmit live views to the operator, giving him an “eye-in-the-sky”. Thanks to the extra stability generated by having from three to eight rotors, these copters provide a very stable platform to take video and even still shots.

The “pimped” copter in flight. Upgrades include better propellers, a better camera and camera stabilizing gimbal, a TV transmitter and double battery mounts. Photo: Kevin O'Brien.

With special training required for the company copter, as well as a waiting list of people to use it, my work colleague Heidi and I were intrigued by the idea of having our own UAV, so we pooled our resources and got a so-called “hobby” quadcopter (four rotors). I had never flown any remote-controlled planes before so I was worried that it would be difficult. After we put it together, it didn’t look very big or even that it had enough power to carry a camera! Nevertheless, we took it outside and powered it up. It even has flashing lights so you can tell the front end from the back. The rotors started spinning with a sound like angry bees and with some throttle on the remote control, it lifted off smoothly and just hung there about three metres off the ground! Wow! Now what? Each battery gives about eight minutes flight time and when you are concentrating on the copter in the air, it is very exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time. I felt like a small boy, flying it is so much FUN! Over the next weeks we practiced our take-offs and landings, learning to fly in smooth curves and figure eights. There were crashes, into trees and onto the ground but nothing more serious than a broken or chipped propeller.

A calm evening in Utö harbour, Archipelago Sea. August 2014. Photo: Kevin O'Brien.

How does the world look from above? Quite soon after the first flights we added a small action camera and set it to record while flying. It is very interesting to see your local world from 100 metres up in the air and it looks very different as suddenly all the usual landmarks are seen from above. Now I understand why pilots can get lost! At this point I had a lot of flying training footage from the local park and wanted a bigger challenge. In September 2013, I was to get my chance. We went to the outer reaches of the Archipelago Sea, near Jurmo, to do marine inventory work. The days were sunny and relatively calm so I took the quadcopter along. The conditions were ideal for aerial filming: a calm, sunny evening. I was very nervous about taking the copter over water and hoped it was worth the risk. I attached the camera to the copter and flew it for about eight minutes while being careful to keep the movement as smooth and slow as possible. Here are the results:

Aerial image showing extensive blue-green algal blooms in the Archipelago Sea in July 2014. Photo: Kevin O'Brien.

I was pretty happy with the final video, you can see incredibly far and the autumn colours are amazing! One interesting feature of the GoPro camera I used is the so-called “fish-eye” effect, which makes the horizon look curved. I had some difficulties keeping the picture steady as I was still getting used to the controls. Still, pretty good results for a “hobby” copter!
Since then our simple copter has undergone a transformation with several upgrades. These include better propellers, a better camera and camera gimbal to stabilize the footage, as well as a TV transmitter to send live images back to the operator. 

Aerial view of the algal bloom around the island of Styrskäret, east of Rosala. Photo: Kevin O'Brien.

This summer we have had a few opportunities came to test these improvements. In July, the long periods of hot, calm weather combined with nutrient loading caused algal blooms throughout the Archipelago Sea and we used the copter to get both aerial footage and still shots of the extent of this phenomenon. More recently in September, we were diving in the outer reaches of the archipelago south of Utö and conditions were ideal. A week earlier we had seen a large number of seals hauled out on some rocks nearby and hoped they would still be there. As we slowly approached the rocky islets we could see the seals through our binoculars and it was nerve-wracking as we didn’t want to scare them by coming too close with the boat. This would also be a good test of our copter to do a seal count, an activity usually carried out by aeroplane. At about 400m distance I launched the copter and sent it towards the skerry. Seas are naturally more cautious when exposed like this and quite a few took to the water while the copter was till approaching. Luckily, enough stayed for me to get some good footage. It was very funny watching the last confused seal that remained on the rock. Although it could hear the copter it never looked up! It was also fantastic to hover over seals wallowing in the shallows. I was very relieved to get the copter back and landed safely in the boat. I think I had held my breath for the entire time! Here is the video:

Although most of the seals left the rock when the copter approached, one individual stayed long enough for us to get this shot. Photo: Kevin O'Brien. 

Future projects will involve filming the seascapes of the Archipelago Sea, as well as aerial views of the activities of the Metsähallitus marine teams, terrestrial trails, etc. So, the next time you are in the archipelago and a small object with four rotors and flashing lights buzzes overhead, don’t worry, it’s not aliens, it’s just us getting new perspectives of the fantastic places in which we work.

Dalskär underwater sculpture trail. The trail was set up in July 2014. Photo: Kevin O'Brien.

Kevin O’Brien

Suunnittelija, Korpoström Marine Team.

1 kommentti:

  1. Thanks for the moments in the air "flying", below the water surface; beautiful sunbeams illuminating the clear sea water and the meadows with shrimps, snails, fish and all kinds of little creatures crawling and swimming around. And for the good company and delicious food during my visit to Korpoström marine team a couple of weeks ago :).