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KANUTI: Baby Boomers with iPads Help to Move Fire and Wildlife Management into the Cloud
Alaska Region, October 5, 2012
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Wildlife Biologist Tim Craig prepares iPad for the raptor nest survey.
Wildlife Biologist Tim Craig prepares iPad for the raptor nest survey. - Photo Credit: Lester Dillard
Survey data displayed on the iPad during the raptor nest survey
Survey data displayed on the iPad during the raptor nest survey - Photo Credit: Tim Craig
Bald Eagle nest photo taken with iPad
Bald Eagle nest photo taken with iPad - Photo Credit: Tim Craig

by Timothy Craig & Peter Butteri 

It’s easy to identify Eastern Interior Refuges Fire Management Officer Peter Butteri and Kanuti Refuge Wildlife Biologist Tim Craig as Baby Boomers. They both have a bit of gray hair, and when you ask them for the time, they glance at their wrist watches. Over their careers, they have resigned themselves to using computers, email and the Internet; but texting remains a mystery to them both.

 Increasingly though, they have found themselves surrounded by a new generation (or two) of young professionals who expect their phones to be smarter than the office computers of a decade ago. Last summer Peter was assigned with the Alaska Incident Management Team to manage a wildfire on the Boise National Forest. Firefighters were toting smart phones and tablets in camp and on the fireline. They expected incident maps to be available instantaneously on their mobile devices, and considered compasses and paper ortho-quads, once standard tools for field navigation, to be inconvenient and obsolete.

His mind awash in the new mobile technologies, Peter returned to his day job in Alaska determined to use them to map his own District fires and values at risk. But, by the time Peter acquired an iPad, the Alaska fire season was effectively ended and he was faced with the prospect of waiting eight months to field test his new iDevice. Then, during a fall staff meeting Peter listened as Tim described his plan to search for Bald Eagle nests from a small airplane over Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge.

Bald Eagles are a common sight over much of Alaska, but not in the far northern Interior. Nonetheless, a few hearty eagles have been known to nest on the Kanuti Refuge, which straddles the Arctic Circle. During the summer of 2012, Refuge biologists were surprised to see adult eagles in several locations that were far from known nest sites. Wildlife biologist Tim Craig and Lester Dillard the Refuge Pilot/Biologist planned to fly surveys along several rivers as soon as the leaves fell from the trees to see if they could spot any new Bald Eagle nests.

Peter instantly saw this as a perfect chance to use his new iPad – after all, he reasoned, there was no difference between mapping hotspots from a helicopter and mapping eagle nests from a small airplane. In fact, his only reservation was that Tim, a fellow ‘Boomer’, who would be the observer and data recorder on the mission, was an avowed Luddite. However, Peter decided that getting Tim to accept and successfully use the device would help to validate its use for field data collection by folks in Alaska’s fire community.

“Give it a shot!” Peter urged, despite Tim being …shall we say… disinclined. In fact, the biologist voiced several valid concerns:

• How hard is it going to be to teach me to use it?
• Do I need to be in cell service range for this thing to work?
• How long will the batteries last?
• Will it work when it’s cold?
• What if I drop it?
• Can I see the screen in bright sunlight?
• Can I get the data off of this thing and into some format I can use?
• What if I delete everything by mistake?
• Why is this any better than a GPS, paper maps and a pencil?

To convince Tim that it would work, Peter built a training map, loaded it into the iPad with a free mapping ‘App’, and coached Tim through a walk-around in the office parking lot. A few turns around the building, navigating with the iPad, dropping pins, and attaching photos of cars and trees was enough to convince Tim to try the new technology during the aerial survey.

“It was the blue ball that caught my attention,” he said; referring to the moving icon on the map that mimicked his path as he walked around the parking lot. “Knowing that I was the moving blue ball on the map was enough to induce me to try the iPad. If that worked in field conditions, it would be a great way to see where I was at any given time in relationship to whatever habitat features we put on the map in the machine.”

Peter put together a detailed GIS map of the Refuge, complete with rivers, topography, and 30m pixels of old growth timber patches, and loaded it onto the iPad. Still, the techno-skeptic, Craig eyed the dinner plate-thin device suspiciously, and surreptitiously snuck a clipboard, pencil, data sheets, and a paper map in the back seat -- just in case.

iPad in hand, Tim climbed aboard the Refuge’s airplane, an American Champion Scout, piloted by Les. Conditions were excellent when the two biologists started the survey, with clear skies, calm winds, and no leaves on the trees. Stick nests built by Bald Eagles, Osprey, Harlan’s Hawks and Northern Goshawks were easily spotted, and so were wildlife. In addition to raptors and nests, they recorded moose, wolves, bears, swans, and sharp-tailed grouse.

At each observation, Tim merely touched the screen to call up a dialogue box in which he recorded information about the site. Like magic, the iPad with its internal GPS, automatically located the data at the exact latitude and longitude and placed an icon on the screen at the correct spot on the map. Tim even took pictures of some of the nesting areas with the iPad’s integral camera. The photos were automatically associated with the waypoints and archived with the data. As Tim foresaw, one of the more useful things about the iPad was the ability to preload a custom, geo-referenced map and data-entry form that allowed the backseat observer to locate nearby blocks of habitat, plan strategies to survey them efficiently, and actually see the airplane’s real-time location in relationship to the boundaries of the habitat. After the first few hours, Tim never looked at his paper map again, although he did record waypoint data on his paper data sheets… ”Double redundancy, just like NASA” he quipped.

All in all, the trio rates the trial as a success. Use of the iPad was easy to master even in the cramped confines of the Scout’s back seat, and Tim managed not to delete his map and/or data in the middle of the survey. Tim’s experience with the iPad has encouraged him to seek additional opportunities for its use on field mapping projects. Helping Tim modernize aerial survey data gathering has better prepared Peter to use the device himself, whether on his next fire assignment in the lower-48, on his home District in Alaska, or in teaching other fire managers to use the new technology.

Peter and Tim still sport a touch of gray, and wear wrist watches, but both have taken their first steps toward migrating into the ‘Cloud,’ even if it is at a Baby Boomer’s pace. Watch closely and you might even catch one or the other of them texting a colleague on his new smart phone.


Contact Info: Timothy Craig, 907 456 0508, timothy_craig@fws.gov



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