UH Hilo geographer Ryan Perroy wins $70k prize for his innovative drone use in Rapid ‘Ōhi‘a Death research

Associate Professor of Geography Ryan Perroy won The ‘Ōhi‘a Challenge with his innovative use of drones and remote sensing devices to detect Rapid ‘Ōhi‘a Death, a fungus decimating Hawaiian forests. The competition was sponsored by Conservation X Labs, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Native Hawaiian Relations, the National Invasive Species Council Secretariat, and the National Park Service.

Ryan Perroy stands with presenters of award. He wears a lei.
Ryan Perroy (center) stands with Stanton Enomoto (left) of the Department of the Interior’s Office of Native Hawaiian Relations, and David Benitez, an ecologist at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. Perroy was presented with the first place award of The ‘Ōhi‘a Challenge at the Hawai‘i Conservation Conference in Honolulu, July 10, 2019. Photo by Danny Duda.

An associate professor of geography at at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo won first place and a $70,000 prize in a competition co-sponsored by the National Park Service.

Ryan Perroy won The ‘Ōhi‘a Challenge with his innovative strategy to use unmanned aircraft systems (UAS or drones) and remote sensing devices to detect a fungus decimating Hawaiian forests. The announcement of Perroy’s win was made today at the Hawai‘i Conservation Conference in Honolulu.

Since 2014 when it was first discovered, Rapid ‘Ōhi‘a Death (ROD), has killed hundreds of thousands of mature ‘ōhi‘a trees (Metrosideros polymorpha) on Hawai‘i Island and was recently detected on Kaua‘i and Maui. ROD is caused by two invasive fungi, Ceratocystis huliohia and Ceratocystis lukuohia, that if left unstopped, could irreversibly change Hawaiian ecosystems and cultural traditions by eliminating the keystone native tree in Hawaiian forests.

Perroy is principle investigator at the UH Hilo Spatial Data Analysis and Visualization lab, a research unit applying geospatial tools to local environmental problems in Hawai‘i and the Pacific region. Perroy’s solution to the fungus problem uses high-resolution cameras and other sensors to improve early detection of ROD across forests, including areas where signs of ROD may not yet be visible to the naked eye. The solution will buy managers precious time to respond to outbreaks, and will give scientists better information on how the disease spreads.

A second component to Peroy’s ROD research is to use drones to collect samples from the canopy of suspect trees for laboratory analysis, thus increasing the chances of detecting the fungus and saving time and effort of crews sampling on the ground in often challenging environments.

“The best answers to problems are not always the ones we think up on our own,” says Susan Combs of the U.S. Department of the Interior Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management, and Budget. “We need innovative solutions like Dr. Perroy’s submission to help us nurture the land for the next generations. Collaborative conservation is an important tool for successfully fulfilling our responsibilities to protect our nation’s forests, watersheds and other natural resources,” she said.

Aerial of brown/dead trees in the forest.
Symptoms of Ceratocystis wilt of ‘ōhi‘a include rapid browning of affected tree crowns. Photo from Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Conservation X Labs, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Native Hawaiian Relations, the National Invasive Species Council Secretariat, and the National Park Service partnered on the ʻŌhiʻa Challenge to identify novel technological solutions to ROD. The $70,000 challenge was offered to create innovative and low-cost solutions to detect the invasion pathways and the spread of ROD-causing fungi in the environment. Fifty-six applications were received from solvers across multiple U.S. states as well as from European and African countries.

“Innovative solutions such as Dr. Perroy’s are a key to stopping the spread of ROD and saving our cherished ‘ōhi’a for future generations,” says Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park ecologist David Benitez, who presented the award to Perroy.

In addition, the co-founder and CEO of Conservation X Labs praised Perroy’s innovative solution. “We believe that exponential technologies and novel innovations are necessary to turn the tide on the growing rate of biodiversity loss,” says Alex Dehgan. “Open innovation competitions like The ‘Ōhi‘a Challenge provide an opportunity to source and scale such transformative solutions. Dr. Perroy’s solution deploying multi-spectral imaging to detect asymptomatic trees at a landscape level has the potential to help save ‘ōhi‘a from extinction. Not only could his work tackle a critical problem in Hawai‘i but it could also yield incredible new developments in tracking fungal pathogens that threaten vital plant and agricultural species globally.”

-Adapted from media release

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