Mapping Salmon Spawning Sites with UAVs

EcologyData Science
Open Access
DOI: 10.18258/3792
Funded on 6/14/15
Successfully Funded
  • $5,650
  • 100%
  • Funded
    on 6/14/15

About This Project

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), often referred to as drones, offer a far cheaper and safer alternative to using planes or helicopters for the aerial surveying of salmon redds (spawning nests) in large rivers. Our research will use UAVs to locate redds in small creeks, which are traditionally surveyed on foot or not at all. UAV technology will allow for much broader-reaching surveys of small creeks and will give salmon researchers a more complete picture of salmon spawning habits.

Ask the Scientists

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What is the context of this research?

Currently, the collection of data on salmon redds is incomplete. Foot surveys are only done in short reaches, and by plane or helicopter, surveying is expensive and dangerous. Accurate redd surveys give researchers a more complete understanding of salmon population health. They also help to quantify habitat restoration efforts and to set accurate fishing quotas.

It has already been demonstrated that UAVs can replace planes and helicopters for surveying larger, open rivers. In creeks, aerial surveys are impossible with a manned-plane or helicopter. A healthy salmon-bearing creek will have almost total canopy cover over it, as salmon prefer colder waters. We want to test small UAVs in their ability to accurately survey redds by flying over the creek below the canopy layer.

What is the significance of this project?

Salmon are threatened on many fronts. And Salmon play a crucial role here in the Pacific Northwest bioregion and elsewhere. They are food for many sea-life, land animals, fungi, and humans. They are an essential part of the maritime economy. You can even correlate historically-large salmon runs with the size of tree rings! There is ample evidence to show that we need to be doing more to help restore native salmon populations and habitat.

Accurate redd counts are essential to setting sustainable fishing quotas and doing more efficient restoration work.

Imagine if we could survey 100x or 1000x more salmon-bearing habitat? The larger the the surveyed area, the better our understanding of salmon spawning will be, and in turn, the better our management practices will become.

What are the goals of the project?

We would like to experiment on a range of creeks in Washington State, including creeks that are currently being surveyed on foot so we can compare data collection methods. We would also like to survey remote locations that have never been surveyed before. Because UAVs are already being used to survey larger rivers, we will focus on smaller creeks.

We believe that UAVs will give researchers more time to analyze and interpret data instead of collecting it or managing the people who do.

Our final report will include comparisons between our data and traditional survey methods, a discussion about the limitations of current UAV technology, and recommendations we have for other researcher looking to use UAVs for aerial surveys. All of this information will be open-access and available online.


  • $4,000Ready-to-Fly Quadcopter w/ Radio and Groundstation
  • $300Canon PowerShot SX260 w/ GPS (hackable!)
  • $350Camera Gimbal
  • $500Transportation Costs to Research Sites
  • $500Spare Parts

UAV: Because the UAV market is advancing so quickly, by the time this campaign is finished there will be many new options. There are a few companies we are in talks about collaborating with, but we will be flying a quad- or hexacopter.

Camera: The Canon Hack Development Kit (CHDK) allows the user to fully access the features of certain Canon models. This will allow us to take pictures at regular intervals (ex. every 5 seconds) for an entire flight with GPS metadata included with each photo.

Gimbal: This gadget remotely moves the camera while flying.

Spare parts: These things crash! Parts that break tend to be arms and rotors. We expect minor damage to occur during the field season, but we will actively work to minimize damage.

Stipends: We need someone to fly this bird! The job will require many, many of hours of fly time. Likewise, the analysis of the stills and videos collected will take hundreds of hours.

Meet the Team


Max: I studied plants and algae while at UW because of my interest at the time in biofuels. I have since become fascinated by salmon and their survival in this region. My interest in salmon led me to an internship doing spawn surveys for salmon redds. When I was hiking upstream one day I had a lightbulb moment involving UAVs and their obvious advantage over hiking upstream in identifying redds. I imagine a not-so-far-off future when drones autonomously survey redds and collect data over huge areas.

Zach: In eighth grade I caught a smallmouth bass, named it Herbert, and put it in a twenty-gallon tank in my bedroom. When I noticed that Herbert's activity level was positively correlated with low register music coming from my stereo, I decided to title my eighth grade science project "Bass on Bass".

I started my science career in ornithology. After a stint working as a commercial fisherman in Alaska I became interested in salmon conservation. Today things have come full-circle and I am a watershed ecologist with an interest in fish behavior.