Can we map clams and their habitats from a bird’s eye view?

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Help Collect Clam Data


The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife SEACOR (Shellfish and Estuarine Assessment of Coastal Oregon) team’s primary goal is to figure out where and how many bay clams are in tidal flats that are popular with recreational and commercial clammers. In the last few years, we have been experimenting with alternative ways of collecting this data, because some of the areas we study are difficult to get to, some can be unsafe (deep mud!), and other ways of collecting data might help us save time.

We have had lots of help with this project, relying on various teams, scientists, and volunteers for their expertise. One group we look forward to working with every year is the Coastal Drone Academy, based out of the Lincoln City Career Tech High School. Dr. Chuck Getter and his student pilots help us by flying UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) surveys in Netarts Bay.

It can be difficult to differentiate between some clam holes, but it does help to make general classifications of different habitats! We can map clam beds, shrimp beds, eelgrass, macroalgae (seaweed), and even sand dollar beds. One interesting result we have found between years was significant changes in eelgrass distribution. This collaboration is a win-win for all of us – the students get experience flying, SEACOR gets valuable data to help us map habitat, and everyone enjoys getting muddy on the tidal flats!

Coming in for a landing! Dr. Chuck Getter catches a quadcopter after a tidal flat aerial survey.

The fixed-wing UAS launches with a little encouragement from a Ground Control Team member. This UAS can fly high and photographs a lot of ground quickly. It collects photos we can use to identify different habitats, like this video.

The quadcopter lifts off and takes flight. This quadcopter flies lower and slower than the fixed-wing UAS. It does not cover as much ground as the fixed-wing but can collect higher resolution images.

The imagery of a Netarts tidal flat from a flight. In the second image: red areas are eelgrass, and yellow areas are algae (seaweed). The tiny white and black squares are 1 square-meter ground control points. Can you find footprints between them?

A quadcopter lifts off from a plywood launchpad.

A quadcopter lifts off from a plywood launchpad. Tideflats (sand, mud, and salt) are harsh environments for electronics!


The Ground Control Team after a successful flight with a fixed-wing UAS.

The Ground Control Team after a successful flight with a fixed-wing UAS.


A SEACOR Team selfie in their natural habitat, Oregon tideflats taken by the quadcopter.

A SEACOR Team selfie in their natural habitat, Oregon tidal flats. This photo was taken by the quadcopter, flying much lower than the fixed-wing UAS.



Tony D'Andrea
Dr. Tony F. D’Andrea, Project Leader
ODFW Marine Resources

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Oregon Fish and Wildlife Marine Resources