ANU Spaces - Cris Brack

Meet Cris Brack, an academic who works at the Fenner School of Environment and Society.

What do you do at ANU?

I do anything that relates to trees - learning how many, how big, how fast they are changing, why some are missing in some places, and how people react to them. I get to teach and learn with students as well as undertake research with domestic and international colleagues.

What is your favourite spot on campus?

At the moment, it is my new office.

I like it because...

Before I moved in, this office had worn, grey industrial carpet and functional floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall book shelves. That was all ripped up to expose a beautiful wooden floor and masterful wooden paneling. People come from "far and wide" to see the natural beauty of the timber and how the office has been transformed.

If I were free for an afternoon, I would...

Walk through the trees - maybe start with the Lindsay Pryor Walk but then follow the banks of Sullivan's Creek to The Lake.

You have an interest in unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones. Can you tell us how you became interested in them?

UAVs seemed like a perfect way of collecting vital information about forests while simultaneously enjoying myself. When I was in New Zealand, the mere presence of a state-of-the-art UAV attracted students to a course on forest statistics and inventory - a course they would otherwise avoid as too boring and too hard.

The particular drone you have has a 2.4 metre wing span and has the ability to fly itself to any point up to 20 minutes away in order to take aerial photography. Why is this important?

Most points in the forests of Australia are within a dozen or so kilometers of a road or access track, but those final few kilometers might be rugged and difficult to walk through. Walking to those points to make observations about tree growth or health can be very time consuming and, especially if you want to make repeated observations, can be expensive and cause damage as you wear in a track. Sending a UAV in to reliably find or re-find and photograph the site is a cheaper and less destructive opportunity to make those important observations.

Do you use the drone in your line of work? If so, what for? What are the benefits of having a piece of equipment like this?

I am still exploring different ways of making optimal use of photographs or other remotely sensed images that can be cheaply captured for any site on a daily or even hourly timeframe. Options range from improving the commercial management of plantations (where actually are the workers pruning, fertilising, harvesting, controlling pests and diseases today) through to capturing exactly when trees are flowering, insects swarming or stands beginning to suffer stress from temperature or moisture extremes.

Of course, there is the added benefit that you can take control of the UAV and fly it remotely yourself. You can react to what you find ...or just have some fun.

You mentioned you're not alone and that there are other drone operators around the University. Have you considered building a club?

UAV's come in all shapes and sizes. My fixed-wing is probably less common than the rotary-bladed machines, and mine stays "outside" and above the trees while some of the others can work inside buildings and at near-ground level. Computer engineers are trying to making them "inquisitive" enough to encourage them to map out buildings, while ANU ecologists and physiologists are hoping they can use them to position sensors in tree canopies or other hard to access places. However we are all on similar learning curves and it might be great to get together to see if one day we can have the ANU UAV equivalent of the Royal Roulettes.