Drones: A Gimmick or a Viable Survey Tool for Arboriculture and Ecology Consultants in 2023

Drone photograph of rolling Peak District Countryside photographed by UAVisionary Ltd

Individuals and businesses have recently become more knowledgeable about drones (or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)). There is a much greater understanding of drone technology and the benefits, as well as potential limitations, of using them for arboricultural and ecological surveys and assessments.

This is nothing new. Drones have been used to conduct environmental studies for a few years now, widely adopted in Forestry and Flood Risk Management. However, the widespread adoption of drones surveys in arboriculture and ecology consultancy has been somewhat muted until now. The drone technology is more cost-effective and accessible to a broader demographic, while recent changes to the legality of operating in certain areas have been updated.

Most “off-the-shelf” drones now have high-resolution cameras with resolutions of up to 8k and image sensors that can capture high-definition images and video footage of the majority of Sites. This latest drone technology provides another tool at the disposal of arborists and ecologists to make even greater informed assessments and decisions about the management of natural assets, particularly those Sites where access is constrained, or visibility is limited.

Environmental Drone Surveys and Assessments

Over the last 6-12 months, we’ve discussed adopting drone technology and how the use of drones could add to our growing capability to provide the most efficient, innovative, and robust assessment methods.

We’ve discussed drone survey services with Callum Throw, our Business Operations Manager who is also certified and experienced Remote Pilot and Director of UAVisionary Ltd, to supplement our existing service offerings and add even more value to our client’s surveying projects.

We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel just yet; instead, we’re incorporating drones into our existing services.

Callum Throw, Wharton.

From 2023, we’ll be providing several service offerings.

Habitat Surveys/Monitoring and Drone Construction Progress Photography

Aerial drone footage, when combined with thorough vegetation surveys, provides a clear picture of how vegetative structure and spatial changes evolve over time. Images can be overlaid in QGIS or other mapping software to identify areas where management is effective as well as areas where remedial measures or other interventions are required.

Aerial mapping enables a rapid visual assessment of a site, enabling ecologists to identify areas where remedial measures may be required in addition to vegetative surveys (such as NVC).

Given the imminent requirement to deliver biodiversity net gain, drone footage can also be used to check habitat management against biodiversity net gain plans to ensure that habitat delivery is in compliance with the approved plan. 

We capture aerial data to clients who want to show progress on construction sites from start to finish. We’ve also provided aerial images and video footage to clients for promotional material for land promotion or their active construction sites.

Preliminary Roost Assessments (PRA)

Our ecologists have long been conducting preliminary roost assessments (PRA) to determine the suitability of buildings or trees for roosting bats. However, access constraints, coupled with health & safety concerns with working at height or in derelict buildings, can pose significant challenges to these surveys and assessments.

Drones will become an essential tool for our ecologists to survey hard-to-reach areas and enable a robust assessment of potential roost features, providing a clear and comprehensive view of the area without the need for onerous or expensive access measures such as MEWPs or scaffolding. Our investment in drones will therefore not only mitigate potential safety risks, but also improve our accuracy and efficiency for completing external roof inspections.

But that’s not all! Our drone footage also enables us to render a 3D model of the building, providing a clear image of both potential roost and access features, as well as the nature of the building itself. This feature is beneficial not only for the ecologist but also for the client and Local Planning Authority, who can view the clear image of the building for themselves.

This feature is beneficial not only for our ecologists but also for our clients and the Local Planning Authority, who can view the buildings and features recorded, for themselves.

What’s more, given that the team have a range of drones at their disposal, there isn’t a project or Site we can’t cover. Our sub-250gram drones (DJI Mini 3 Pro) mean we can fly in built-up areas, at residential, recreational, commercial, and industrial sites, with reduced separation distances. Where we have greater control over ‘uninvolved people’ or on private land (areas with no public access and separation distances can be maintained) we can utilise our DJI Mavic Air 2s or DJI Phantom 4.

Copyright: dji.com

Drones for water vole surveys

One of the priorities at Wharton is to limit work on, near, or over water. Drones can be used to conduct water vole surveys in places where using a boat on a body of water would be prohibitively expensive or dangerous. Flying over an area and capturing high-resolution images and video of riverbanks or embankments from a safe distance can help our ecologists analyse the habitat types present and their suitability.

Drones for Checking Tree Protection and Exclusion Fencing

Arboricultural Consultants and Ecologists regularly conduct checks on Tree Protective Fencing, great crested newt (GCN) or reptile exclusion fencing to ensure it is installed correctly and to identify any areas where the fencing has been damaged. However, this process can be time-consuming and take our consultants away from other fee-earning work, especially for large sites or multiple fencing parcels.

Our partnership with UAVisionary Ltd offers a time-saving service that uses drones to check exclusion fencing quickly and efficiently. Our certified drone pilots can either program a predetermined route into the drone to check that the fencing is installed correctly or manually fly the drone just above ground level to identify areas of damage. The use of drone technology not only saves time but also offers a more accurate and efficient solution for checking fencing.

Our drone service provides dated video evidence of the fencing check, which can be used for compliance or licensing purposes. We can also convert the video footage into detailed plans that highlight areas where fencing has been installed incorrectly or where damage to the fencing has occurred.

Drones in Arboriculture

Drones can also be used for a variety of arboricultural assessments, such as visual surveys (VTA), which allow you to assess potential risk features more closely and thoroughly detect signs of decay or damage that may not be visible from the ground.

Drones are also being used to capture various types of aerial data for the purpose of monitoring and managing ash dieback (Hymenoscyphus fraxineus). Through aerial surveying, it is possible to find ash populations, identify target areas, detailed maps of diseased or declining trees, and assess arboricultural and ecological constraints.

Furthermore, by utilising a unmanned aerial vehicle and 3D photogrammetry, we can broaden the scope of VTA. This technology allows us to accurately model trees in a 3D environment, allowing us to make more informed decisions about the condition and any remediable management.


In conclusion, drones have afforded our team at Wharton Natural Infrastructure Consultants the ability to revolutionise the way that they operate. Using drones, we can ensure that our arboricultural and ecology consultants have a more accurate and efficient solution for capturing data through surveys and assessments, saving both time and costs for our clients.

Contact us today to learn more about our drone services and how we can assist you with your arboricultural and ecology consultancy needs.

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