Researchers at the WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design are using drones to develop tools that can detect, map, treat and monitor invasive plant species with grant support from the Richard King Mellon Foundation. (Submitted Photo)

A new ‘war of the roses’: WVU integrates sensors, drones and machine learning to target thorny pest

Multiflora rose may sound like a bountiful variant of the classic flowering bush, but its unexpected white blooms and red berries conceal one of Mother Nature’s sinister surprises: The invasive shrub is a thorny foe that threatens native plants in more than 40 states, including West Virginia and neighboring Pennsylvania.

The perennial pest’s flowers and fruit also make it easy to identify, which sparked inspiration for West Virginia University researchers. Thanks to a $175,000 grant from the Pittsburgh-based Richard King Mellon Foundation, the Natural Resource Analysis Center at the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design is building upon its expertise with drones to develop tools that can detect, map, treat and monitor invasive species such as multiflora rose.

The project involves equipping drones with sensors that will be used to collect environmental data in a designated area of southwestern Pennsylvania over multiple seasons. The research team plans to use the data, combined with machine learning technology, to develop software that can identify multiflora rose and, eventually, other invasive species. The software could then be used for targeted delivery of herbicides via drone.

“You do research not knowing the result, but we think — based on the success precision agriculture is having and the way machine learning is growing — this is kind of the next step in merging these technologies and making them useful for West Virginia and Pennsylvania, all over Appalachia,” Walter Veselka, grants administrator for NRAC, said.

Depending on its economic viability, the project offers a multitude of possible benefits for the Appalachian region and beyond.

Like most invasive species, multiflora rose has a competitive advantage. The shrub emerges early each spring, suppressing native plants and disrupting the carbon life cycle. A tool that enables targeted treatment would allow native species to flourish while also reducing harmful overspray of herbicides.

Targeted treatment could also potentially cut costs for municipalities, utility companies, conservation groups and more by minimizing herbicide usage. Meanwhile, using drones for herbicide delivery may simultaneously enhance safety in treacherous areas that are only otherwise accessible on foot.

“We’re interested in how you apply some of these tools and technologies in a way that’s useful to people in a cost-effective way,” NRAC Director Paul Kinder said. “We really are building a capability that we want to be able to share.”

The project also offers educational benefits for participating student researchers. Donn Bartram, of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, is pursuing his master’s degree in energy environments at the Davis College. He was drawn to the field after taking a class with Kinder focused on drone technology and its environmental applications.

“This is great experience,” Bartram said. “I learn not only in a classroom but out in the field as well. This real-world experience is more beneficial than anything you could get in a classroom.”

The project builds upon ongoing drone-based research being conducted by NRAC in partnership with the U.S. Office of Surface Mine Reclamation and Enforcement. That study focuses on autumn olive, which is one of the most common invasive brush species in West Virginia and often a hindrance to reclamation efforts.

Kinder said he’s grateful for the opportunity to expand upon that work with support from the Richard King Mellon Foundation.

“I’m very thankful for this funding from the Richard King Mellon Foundation,” Kinder said. “We have an existing grant that got us started down this path, but this one really opens doors for us. It lets us be flexible and take some risks. It’s just amazing to me that the Foundation has that reach and willingness to take a chance on researchers down here in West Virginia. I’m really appreciative.”

Founded in 1947, the Richard King Mellon Foundation is the largest foundation in southwestern Pennsylvania and one of the 50 largest in the world. The Foundation funds projects that promote greater prosperity in the region and support environmental conservation efforts nationwide.

Sam Reiman, director of the Richard King Mellon Foundation, said the Foundation “issued a national request for proposals to identify promising approaches to address invasive species. This led to grants to groups across the country, including this innovative initiative at West Virginia University, where researchers are using drones and machine learning to find and potentially eliminate invasive plant species that threaten the underlying ecological integrity of sensitive landscapes.”

WVU is also collaborating with two private partners to help facilitate success. CNX, a natural gas company headquartered in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, is offering the use of reclaimed mine land, and Resource Environmental Solutions, an ecological restoration company, is providing technical assistance with herbicide selection and deployment.

The bulk of the data collection and analysis focused on multiflora rose will begin with its emergence during the 2024 spring growing season, but NRAC’s team of researchers is already taking advantage of its autumn olive data to see what information can be gleaned about multiflora rose.

Kinder said he hopes to secure additional funding that will enable NRAC to explore other plant species and related challenges, such as invasive insects. His ultimate goal is to develop a guide or methodology to help farmers, land managers and other stakeholders understand how to use modern technologies to their advantage as those resources improve in quality and accessibility.

“We’re going to be learning more and more about what’s possible,” Kinder said. “This research is going to help us collectively get better at using these tools to adapt and adjust to climate change.”

The grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation was awarded through the WVU Foundation, the nonprofit organization that receives and administers private donations on behalf of the University.

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