Drones have received considerable media attention recently for a wide range of applications, from aerial photography to military roles to serving as a possible delivery method for Amazon products. But, have you heard we now have one of these impressive little machines right here at West Chester University in the Earth and Space Sciences Department?
The main role of drones in science is serving as platforms for data-collecting devices. They can be used to take high resolution aerial pictures of specific areas at specific times, something that cannot typically be achieved through satellite imaging.
Additionally, they can carry devices which collect meteorological data and obtain information at very precise altitudes and locations in a way that previous technology was incapable of.
Overall, drones help keep researchers out of harm’s way while enabling them to collect more precise data than they could with traditional methods.
In June of this year, the Earth and Space Sciences Department acquired a small drone to serve as a tool for data collection in research, and it is already being used in three ongoing studies:
“Feasibility of Drone Use in 3D Geologic Mapping” by Dan Bochicchio, who has a master’s degree in Geoscience and Professor LeeAnn Srogi, PhD.
Here, the drone is being used to take pictures and create a 3D model of a dimension stone quarry in order to project what type of stone would occur farther under the surface.
“UAV Data Collection of Salt Marsh Ponds and Land Forms” by Garret Rees and Michael J. Cohen, who both have a bachelor’s degree in Geoscience and Associate Professor Daria Nikitina, PhD. For this study, an island in a salt marsh is being mapped and turned into a 3D model by combining pictures taken by the drone with core sample data from around the island.
The photos are also being used by the anthropology department because they are investigating a Native American archeological site on the island and need to determine the best locations to dig.
“Preliminary Analysis of Meteorological Weather Variables Collected Using a Drone” by Erica Rice, who has a bachelor’s degree in Earth Systems and Associate Professor Joby Hilliker, PhD. Here, the drone is being used to collect data about microclimates, the meteorological conditions of very specific locations and altitudes.
Another study, “Application of the Unstructured Grid Technique to Investigate Groundwater Flow Through Hibernia Dam, Wagontown, PA” has been proposed by Dane Hopkins, who has a master’s degree in Geoscience, and Professor Martin Helmke, PhD.
The study would use the drone to create a 3D model of the reservoir and dam, as well as to help make groundwater models.
In addition, interest in using the drone for research extends beyond the Earth and Space Sciences Department.
In an interview, Dr. Hilliker and graduate student Dan Bochicchio said, “There is interest in multiple departments that want to use the drone . . . anthropology, sociology, geography [and] biology,” showing the drone is truly an interdisciplinary resource.
In the year preceding the drone’s arrival, a committee on drone policy was created, and it established official regulations regarding the use of drones on WCU’s campus.
The committee addressed three main concerns: privacy, safety and noise, to ensure any use of drones at WCU is considerate of the campus community in all respects.
Research by David Kodokain, a student in the Earth and Space Sciences Department, titled: “An Overview of Drone Evolution and Their Varied Application to Meteorological Research,” provided background on historical innovations in drone technology and an overview of how other universities and organizations have used and managed drones. Kodokain said in an interview, “We have this policy so . . . we can help make them [students] feel comfortable knowing that . . . we’re managing ourselves professionally and that there’s a whole series of accountability that we go through to make sure that we’re doing this safely.”
The Earth and Space Sciences Department’s acquisition of a drone comes as the drone industry is growing rapidly, due in part to the versatility of drones, the types of research they enable and their relatively cheap cost when compared to other aerial data collection tools.
According to Bochicchio, who is working toward creating his own entrepreneurial drone business, “Drones are the next and probably the most profitable tool you can learn at a university,” when it comes to fields such as Earth and space sciences.
As these devices become a more common part of our lives, it can be a great benefit to WCU science students to be able to access a drone, learn the necessary skills to operate it, and use it as a tool in their research.
In addition, the drone provides an educational opportunity for all of us to see the positive impact drones can have when used safely and constructively.
So, if you are ever on South Campus and see a small robot hovering over the rugby field, wave hello and know it is helping us understand the world just a little bit better.
The full details of WCU’s drone policy can be found at www.wcupa.edu/dps/dronesPolicy.aspx.
Abbey Bigler is a fourth-year student majoring in English with minors in business and technical writing, communication studies and biology. She can be reached at AB842693@wcupa.edu.