UMD Pushes Beyond Line of Sight to Map Impacts of Traditional Farming in Belize

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University of Maryland (UMD) researchers once again looked to the sky last month to understand how villages in Belize sustainably manage shared natural resources using sometimes controversial “slash-and-burn” agricultural practices.

Anthropologist Sean Downey and JAcob Moschler, an engineer with UMD’s Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Test Site, used a pair of FireFLY 6 drones to scan 10,000 acres in and around the Q’eqchi’ Maya village of Crique Sarco in Belize’s Toledo District. Mounted Micasense Red Edge multispectral cameras captured a total of 31,000 images in five discrete wavelengths.

It was the second aerial scan of the region in less than twelve months and the first time a UAS Test Site operator has flown using only instrumentation and onboard cameras.

With clearance from the Belize Department of Civil Aviation, Moschler scanned the jungle more than four miles away from a makeshift ground control station from an altitude of 1,500 feet.

“It’s really rare for people to get permission to fly beyond line of sight because of the safety issues it raises,” said Moschler. “We made radio calls and used cameras to see what else was out there and did encounter some traffic. But we remained well clear—or safely away from other aircraft—throughout.”

Those same cameras, along with first-person view goggles, also allowed community members to see live aerial images of their village and community forests for the first time.

“Ultimately, this project is about understanding how communities like these have learned over time to sustainably manage their local forests and natural resources,” said Downey, who received a $500,000 grant through the National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Program in 2015 for this five-year project. “Not only do we need local help to safely conduct this kind of research, but we need input on the kinds of information to collect and the right questions to ask. Some community members assisted with ground operations, while others with extensive knowledge of local forests are helping to collect information that will eventually be used to cross-check the aerial imagery.”   

Downey and his research team will spend the next several months stitching the recent images together into landscape-scale maps they will use to analyze social and ecological dynamics related to swidden—also known as slash-and-burn—agriculture.

Q’eqchi’ Maya farmers commonly cut a swath of forest with axes and machetes before burning the vegetation to release nutrients in the soil. After several years of cultivating corn and root crops, native plants are allowed to regrow to restore fertility. The result is a dynamic patchwork of fallow and burgeoning plots that the researchers expect to harbor unexpectedly high levels of biodiversity.

The team will also use surveys, interviews and other ethnographic methods, as well as those used in experimental behavioral economics, to understand how social dynamics relate to the observed swidden pattern.

A third round of mapping is slated for spring 2018, and Moschler hopes to make that operation fully autonomous—from the first takeoff of the day to the final landing. He and UMD systems engineer John S. Baras will spend the next year working to develop optimized scan patterns to make that goal a reality.  

“There are many ways to scan an area. The question is what is the most efficient pattern given changing winds, areas of focus and other factors.” Moschler explained. “There is a mathematical answer that we can write into the system software.”

Beyond Moschler’s algorithm, the team will also upgrade hardware in order to maintain the strong, consistent GPS signal needed for autonomous flight.

To access photos and video of this field project, visit

Published February 14, 2017