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How WEC Works: Matt Burgess

A Gainesville native and WEC alumnus, Dr. Matt Burgess (WEC PhD ‘17; SNRE MS ‘08; BS ZOO ‘99) is the coordinator of UF’s Unmanned Aerial Systems Research Program (UASRP)  and works with multiple groups of stakeholders involved in the development and application of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), with a focus on natural resource applications.  We sat down with him to talk about his life and work. This is an excerpt from that conversation.

How did you get interested both in wildlife and in Unmanned Aerial Vehicles? Do you have an origin story?

I had no choice with wildlife. I grew up here in Gainesville. Both my folks work at the university. My father, George Burgess, is a shark researcher at the museum, so from the youngest of ages he had me out in the field collecting fish and working with sharks. I’ve enjoyed the outdoors a lot, and had a lot of field experience. I’ve gone out on research vessels, all kinds of things, but coming out of high school I thought I was going to be a civil engineer. I enjoyed aircraft as a personal hobby, and thought I would wind up designing airports.

I went through three years of civil engineering, but got tired of doing the same integrals and math over and over again. I just couldn’t see my life going in that direction, so I transferred into the zoology department. I got my bachelor’s degree in zoology in 1999, and was much happier there.

That led to my earning a master’s degree in Natural Resource Conservation shortly after that SNRE program emerged, then I did my PhD in wildlife ecology, focusing on the use of small unmanned aircraft systems technology for data collection, and graduated last spring.

Biology ultimately was where I was all along. I enjoyed being outdoors, and my father treated me like a graduate student in many ways. I dissected sharks and collected data as a kid, took samples and writing field notes. I worked alongside a lot of graduate students, and was exposed to a lot of things most kids weren’t exposed to.

What’s one word that describes how you work?

Well, I deal with technology, which, as you know, moves extremely quickly. You might have a good cell phone today, but you know there will be a better one by tomorrow.

So Unmanned Aerial Systems ten years ago were basically military-only. I built unmanned aircrafts to fly recreationally, and it took me two weeks to complete one by the time I ordered the parts and put it together.

Now you can order one online, have it by the morning, charge the battery, and be flying by tomorrow.

So, to answer your question, I put out today’s fire today. UAS is emerging, and as it’s been emerging, I’ve been providing knowledge, as I’ve learned it, to help others understand how these things work: they’re not going to be armed, they’re not going to be spying on you. There are other applications for these things. I do a lot of media and public relations.

I try to make the university aware that UAS are coming, and are not going away. We probably should have a plan in place, because they’ll be coming on campus, and professors will be interested in them.

I’ve been dealing with people way above my pay grade. When I started, I was just a graduate student, but I was speaking with the general counsel’s office, which sets rules for the entire university, with their lawyers, with the FAA, and people in Washington, DC. It’s exciting!

I think that’s a good word to describe my work: exciting. Maybe “innovative” works too.

I wear a lot of hats.

What’s your favorite organism you’ve studied and why?

Pygmy Rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis), left photo credit BLM, right credit NPS

My committee will find this entertaining.

I grew up as the son of an ichthyologist, with my shark scientist dad. My mom worked as a nurse in Shand’s hospital until she retired recently. I grew up surrounded by math and science.

I worked for the Florida Program for Shark Research at the museum after I finished my master’s, while I was looking for “the next job”. That’s when the UASRP was looking for a new coordinator. So, at the time I took that job, my life had primarily been spent working in saltwater and freshwater fishes, primarily in wetland ecosystems. In Florida, that’s pretty much everywhere.

This job, while we do a lot of things around Florida with unmanned aerial systems, has introduced me to work in Idaho and other places across the country, as well.

Every flight is an education for me, because we always have a specific target, be it a type of vegetation or a specific critter, or a given habitat. Regardless of what it is, we’re taking imagery of an area, and to be honest, the most exciting part for me is getting back in the lab and looking at all the images. It’s like playing Where’s Waldo?, and you’ll be surprised at all the things that you can find in these images.

So I don’t really have a favorite organism in particular, I most enjoy collecting data from a perspective that humans would never have from the ground or a boat.

Getting the added dimension from above can really open your eyes to the habitat, and that’s the best part for me.

Pygmy rabbits are an example of a critter we look for, which are so small that two adults can fit in the palm of my hand. They live out in Idaho, and are listed as “Threatened”. They’ll probably be “Endangered” before long. We weren’t looking for them directly, but for the habitat that they live in based on ground trothed information. That was really fun.

We’ve looked at dolphins, and wading birds off of Seahorse Key with Dr. Frederick and Dr. Pine, I’ve done work in the Everglades with Dr. Frederick, as well, and looked at vegetation changes in Lake Okeechobee and other areas where the Army Corps of Engineers sprays channels. We’ve looked at hydrology, trying to establish the sheet flow problem in the Everglades, taking pictures of “untouched areas” of the Everglades versus treatment plots where they are testing different hydrologic regimes. There are a tremendous number of targets.

Same location on Lake Okeechobee before and after herbicide treatment. Aerial monitoring for long-term effects is ongoing. Credit UASRP.

Some days we’re flying for wading birds on nests, other days we’re flying to count the number of salmon beds, gravel nests they create. We use the number of beds to help determine how many salmon are successfully making it up the river to reproduce.

A lot of these things have been done in the past using manned aircraft, which work, but we can do them more safely, and accurately with UAS, and it costs a lot less.

What’s an unexpected experience you’ve had because of your work?

Every day is unexpected!

I always knew that small unmanned systems were going to be a useful tool for natural resources. I’ve always been a technology nerd, and always tried to stay on top of things. I’m trying to find ways to use technology to help advance things that have been, perhaps, done a certain way for a very long time, in an easier and more accurate way.

When I first saw unmanned systems, I thought, “This is going to be a big thing.”

The biggest surprise is how fast it’s taken off.

To really answer your question:

We built planes to work and fly in the heat and humidity of the Everglades, working off an airboat, and then flew that same aircraft on the first of January in the mountains of Idaho. The thinner air and the cold forced us to do a tremendous amount of work. We learned a lot.

Just because you might expect a system to work off the shelf, there’s no guarantee. It might have only been tested in China, or wherever, and not function the same in your area and for your given application. It’s important to have the right tools for your environment.

Do you have any wildlife or UAS-related jokes?

Not really any jokes, but I have a funny story.

Pygmy rabbit icon for aircraft

Idaho is a very different place than Florida. I’ve made five trips out there for various projects, mostly because they were using helicopters for their surveys, and lost two helicopters, their pilots, and biologists, in a very short period of time.
When they got word that UF was working on unmanned systems that could potentially keep those pilots and biologists on the ground and still collect unmanned data, they were interested.

Whenever I went out, I would contact the local papers and radio stations to let them know who we were and what we were doing in their area. I’d invite people to the local library or community center and have an open discussion meeting. They could ask all the questions they wanted.

The lands we flew over for the pygmy rabbit project were public, BLM lands, but farmers graze their cattle there. We were flying over these lands to look for pygmy rabbit habitat. The cows and the rabbits don’t cause any problems for each other.

At the public meeting for that project, one guy thought we were flying and dropping pygmy rabbits into the fields to give the federal government an excuse to cordon off land from grazing because an endangered species would then be present there.

I was really taken aback, because at first I was trying really hard not to laugh. I’m just taking pictures!

We created a little icon of a rabbit with a parachute, and put it on our aircraft out there.

That’s the funniest story, really, because usually when we bring our systems to a new place and lay them on a table people are mainly surprised that that’s what we’re flying. They’re envisioning huge stuff they see the military using on TV. That’s understandable. So this is a big part of what I do as well: try to show people that this is just a tool, in this case that can be used to advance science.

We work in a way that is very conscious and careful of people’s privacy. We’re very careful about where we fly, we get written permission, and we invite people out with us when we do our work.

Top left, Matt (center) with two colleagues in Idaho; Top right, operating the UAS, bottom two, cold field conditions. Credit UASRP

I didn’t really know that would be a part of this job when I first took it, but I’ve found that people really like to know about what we do. They have a lot of ideas, and those are the things that get me excited. Pluses, minuses, and new applications!

Is there anything else you’d like to tell people?

Unmanned aircraft systems are indeed aircraft. You have to treat them as if they are manned aircraft. I think that’s critical. I encourage everybody to go on the FAA website, where they have a whole section devoted to unmanned aircraft systems. It’s a good resource for people to check into to answer basic questions. I would also like to encourage people to go to our website to find out more about some of the projects we’ve done.

It’s critical that people understand that this technology is evolving rapidly, and the rule today might not be the rule tomorrow, and do their best to stay up with the rules before they go flying.

Ever since we started with this, it’s been a question of when, not if, there will be a problem with, say, someone flying into a manned aircraft or something like that, so I try to educate as many people as I can so that people can continue to fly UAS for their enjoyment, or businesses, or research, and manned aircraft folks can continue to fly as well. We can all get along, we just have to bear with the new laws.

This interview is by Rhett Barker, and has been lightly edited for clarity by Claire Williams and Rhett Barker.

Thanks to Dr. Burgess for sitting down with us!

To learn more about the UF/IFAS Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, click here!

Click here for more information about the UF/IFAS Unmanned Aerial Systems Research Program!

The concept for this interview is based on an interview series by the University of Washington called How UW Works, which is in turn based on a series called How I Work by LifeHacker magazine.