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Milton Garcia’s

June 7, 2018

Coibita, Barro Colorado

When he’s not racing his bike cross-country, Milton Garcia is in demand for his expertise flying drones. In the last month, he monitored mangrove deforestation on Panama’s Pacific coast, mapped a new research station in Coiba National Park and tracked blooming trees on Barro Colorado Island, the first plot in an international network of forest monitoring sites.

Walking into Milton’s office at the Smithsonian’s Tupper Center in Panama is like walking into an electronics store. Plastic boxes filled with slightly mysterious parts and gadgets on the countertops provide the first clues that Milton is an inventor and can fix almost anything.

Milton assembles, repairs and operates the complex equipment that staff scientist Klaus Winter’s group uses to discover how plants may react to global warming scenarios. He also works with staff scientists Joe Wright and Helene Muller-Landau as drone technician and operator, a skill currently in great demand both by biologists and conservationists.

Most of what goes on in a tropical forest is far out of reach at the tops of tall canopy trees. Ingenious biologists have used climbing gear, pulleys and even construction cranes to access the canopy, but drones beat all of those methods and they are relatively inexpensive.

For the last two years, Milton has been running the drone survey of STRI’s 50-hectare long-term forest dynamics plot on Barro Colorado Islands every month, enabling researchers to compare data taken on the ground with images taken from the sky and to better understand how the forest changes with the seasons and with changing environmental conditions.

Satellites photograph treetops from space but a drone has the advantage of being able to fly underneath the clouds, which often block the view of the landscape below, especially in the humid tropics.

It costs upwards of $100,000 for a single flight by a plane carrying LIDAR equipment to map forest structure and provide images to monitor forest health. But a drone can do the same job at a much lower cost and can be mounted with different sets of cameras and sensors depending upon the purpose of the flight.

Recently, Milton traveled with Steve Paton, the director of STRI’s Physical Monitoring Program, to the La Maestra mangrove area approximately 70 kilometers east of Panama City, invited by Panama’s National Bureau of Science and Technology (SENACYT) to investigate reports of large-scale death of mangrove forests as a result of the 2015-2016 El Niño event. His drone photography not only provided high-resolution documentation of the extent and nature of the mangrove die-off, it also revealed deforestation in the area.

STRI Deputy Director, Bill Wcislo, asked Milton to map the Smithsonian’s newest research station in Panama on Coibita Island in Panama’s Coiba National Park, where STRI videographer, Ana Endara, interviewed him.

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