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2020 Summer Review: Using Drone Technology to Survey Monarch Habitat

Nov 18, 2020


By Kiley Friedrich

As the new Agriculture Program Coordinator at the Monarch Joint Venture, part of my role is piloting our habitat drone work. This summer, I had the opportunity to fly drone carried sensors to capture aerial images of milkweed and flowering nectar plants across the upper Midwest.  I've spent the past decade conducting field research, but using drones was new territory for me. Field ecologists are often left to fashion field equipment to fit their specific needs - tried and true low tech fixes constructed in a lab or home kitchen. Drone technology is not only shiny and new, but hugely informative in its data collection capabilities. It has the potential to drastically change the speed and scale at which we evaluate habitat. But it also means learning another way to collect data in the field!

For me, this meant starting by learning how to fly a drone, a skill I didn’t learn studying entomology in grad school. After getting my pilot’s license (certified FAA drone pilot right here!), it was time to get out in the field. One sunny day, I planned to capture the incredible work of our field technicians who spent the summer using nationally standardized protocols and field methods to survey monarch and pollinator habitat. As I carefully flew the drone closer to capture dynamic footage of their work, a breeze swept my drone towards the crew, causing a slight moment of terror in their eyes. But all was well! As I spent hours and hours capturing footage in the fields, my skills as a pilot improved along with our habitat data collection.  

The drone allows us to capture incredibly detailed images of habitat from the air. The more images we collect, the more accurate the machine-learning of the drone technology. This allows us to do things like quickly count milkweed stems across a large landscape. This particular dataset is important because scientists suggest that we need up to 1.8 billion milkweed stems in the Midwestern region of the U.S. to support the eastern population of the monarch butterfly (Pleasants, 2017; Thogmartin et al., 2017). You read that right - 1.8 billion! Using drone technology to count milkweed stems will greatly increase our ability to accurately and quickly survey areas across the Midwest and beyond.  

Using drone technology does not replace the peer-reviewed and well-tested field survey methods or the need for boots on the ground. Instead, drones are able to enhance this work and improve our ability to gather information about the landscape. Plus, who doesn’t love flying a drone for work?!

Learn more about MJV's drone technology program.

The MJV drone hovers over a field of wildflowers.


Friedrich getting ready for take off on a summer morning in Minnesota! Photo: Mathias Krueckeberg


Capturing footage of the Monarch Joint Venture field crew as they use the Integrated Monarch Monitoring Program (IMMP) to survey monarch habitat. Photo: Kiley Friedrich


Friedrich using the drone to survey monarch habitat in Minnesota. Photo: Melissa Wray


Aerial image of monarch habitat and neighboring farmland, captured via drone at the Ney Nature Center in Henderson, Minnesota.  Photo: Kiley Friedrich


The Monarch Joint Venture is a national partnership of federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, businesses and academic programs working together to conserve the monarch butterfly migration. The content in this article does not necessarily reflect the positions of all Monarch Joint Venture partners. Written by Kiley Friedrich with contributions from Christine Sanderson. 



Pleasants, J. (2017). Milkweed restoration in the Midwest for monarch butterfly recovery: estimates of milkweeds lost, milkweeds remaining and milkweeds that must be added to increase the monarch population. Insect Conserv. Divers. 10, 42–53. doi: 10.1111/icad.12198

Thogmartin, W. E., López-Hoffman, L., Rohweder, J., Diffendorfer, J., Drum, R., Semmens, D., et al. (2017). Restoring monarch butterfly habitat in the Midwestern US: ‘all hands on deck’. Environ. Res. Lett. 12:074005. doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/aa7637