Understanding how professionals are actually using UAVs is a critical consideration for anyone wanting or trying to properly leverage the technology. What does it actually mean for someone to use a drone in the field? Will utilizing a UAV create efficiencies that can be quantified? How is all of that impacting the bottom line for the project? These are questions professionals want and need to have answered, but the challenges associated with doing so stem from the fact that all of this is new technology. It’s not as if working professionals learned about how they could or should be using the technology when they were in school.
That won’t be the case in the near future though, as various programs and universities are working to integrate drone technology in an active way into what students are learning in the classroom. Doing so isn’t just about using drones though, because the reality is that UAVs will soon be thought of as just another tool. Before that happens professionals will need to have a nuanced understanding around how the technology can be leveraged, and that’s exactly what’s happening in courses at West Point and Virginia Commonwealth University.
UAV Technology Comes to West Point
The Geospatial Information Science Program at United States Military Academy, West Point, has been around for about two decades. Started by Dr. John Brockhaus, the course is centered on the science of information technology, specifically the geospatial side. To major in the program, cadets have to take 40 courses, and that includes GIS remote sensing, surveying and photogrammetry.
West Point is focused on incorporating modern technology like drones in the curriculum because it creates options for graduates. The Department of Geography & Environmental Engineering that Lieutenant Colonel Jared L. Ware belongs to is a small one, but he knows that what they’re doing in it will enable opportunities for cadets in military and non-military contexts.
“Initially all of our graduates will be commissioned as Second Lieutenants in the Army,” Lt. Col. Ware said. “We’re seeing graduates utilize a lot of the engineering skills they learned in our program in their jobs as Lieutenants, but we’re also seeing plenty of those graduates go into public and private industries. Some are working in various government organizations like the Department of Defense and Department of Transportation. We also have a few cadets that are now working with Esri or other software companies in the geospatial industry.”
The Academy’s GIS program has been accredited by the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF) and it includes 40 core courses and four GIS-specific courses. The Academy has two drones, a fixed wing and a quad-copter, and they’re able to give cadets the kind of hands-on experience with the technology that is having a huge impact around how they approach gathering and processing data.
Much of that was a recent development though. The faculty was trying to figure out how they could improve their geospatial workflow since it’s one of the things cadets specifically study. Using hardware like the Trimble UX5 and software like Esri’s Drone2Map has given students a whole new perspective.
“We have cadets who have a background specifically in GIS, some in remote sensing and some who are just in information processing,” Lt. Col. Ware continued. “So we gave them all a project to create a map. They were able to produce very specific products from the information produced in Drone2Map. It sped up the workflow, which was great because it allowed us to spend more time on the science and the analysis rather than the processing. It’s really helping us change our curriculum for the better.”
Seeing that change from both the perspective of educators and students is a critical consideration, because it’s meant both have more time to focus on essentials that might have otherwise been sidelined by logistics, such as processing. However, that’s not the only consideration around using these tools in the classroom.
Drones at Virginia Commonwealth University
Mr. William Shuart started his career about 20 years ago. His Masters work focused on looking at landscapes and how they affect stream airborne and satellite fish communities, which allowed him to get involved with remote sensing and GIS in his early career. He’s always worked with imagery, and that’s just part of what made him the ideal instructor for the Applications of Drone Technology course that was recently concluded at the Center for Environmental Studies (CES-VCU) at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“I’ve really taken a circuitous path to drone technology, but I’ve been working in everything from geospatial analysis and development to real-time data my entire career,” Shuart said. “I teach several courses in our graduate program in environmental technology, GIS and remote sensing, and we often talk about how environmental phenomenon don’t necessarily wait for satellites to come overhead or planes to get ready. Drones are the next wave of collecting environmental data because they can provide real time data with a variety of sensors that can be applied to many different situations.”
During the course, students were exposed to the principles of remote sensing, GPS, and drones and how to apply these technologies to map and solve environmental problems. They used Drone2Map from Esri to produce digital surface models, point clouds, and vegetation indices and then push those results to their Portal for ArcGIS to create web mapping applications.
Traditionally, students have needed to rely on satellite data, which created real limitations in terms of scale and time. The unparalleled spatial and temporal resolution Shuart and his students found with UAV drone data was a true revelation, and it really opened up students’ eyes in terms of data collection. It allowed them to actually plan something for the next day or next week and not worry about whether or not a satellite would be in range.
This change really put the onus around what decisions could and should be made on the students. It gave them the ability to really plan a project and provided experiences with mission planning in a real-world setting. The technology has taken that concept of real-world experience to a different level.
“In our masters program, we’re training, educating and providing research opportunities for the future of the environmental field,” Shuart mentioned. “That’s how we look at it. We’ve always tried to push students to see and get experience with future technology. In the course I wanted to give students experience using both fixed wing and multi-rotor platforms but, from my perspective, the datasets that you can derive from the types of sensors that are on those aircrafts are what’s essential. It’s really about the application of drone technology.”
That application is something Shuart made sure to highlight, because the students are not building or configuring these devices. They’re using off-the-shelf software and hardware, like Drone2Map, the fixed wing senseFly eBee, and a multi-rotor 3DR Solo. Students combine that hardware and software with the different sensors they have to create products, including vegetation indices to look at stress or comparing size of tidal and non-tidal wetland areas
These are examples of core learning concepts that are influencing how students move forward in the class and eventually in their careers.
A Different Way of Thinking
Much like working professionals, both instructors and students have seen drones and the tools associated with them completely change the timetable around when and how something can be done. A project that would have taken six weeks to do using traditional survey methods can be flown in an afternoon. After post-processing you can have the asset that you’re looking for in the next day or two. That kind of speed is a factor in how intricate and complex these projects can be, which makes them all the more relevant to the career’s of students after they’ve left the classroom.
“We had a pretty robust dataset that we collected over Range 11 here at West Point, which is about 80 acres,” Lt. Col. Ware said. “We collected 3cm spatial resolution. After post processing it we were immediately able to produce orthomasaic and also the surface model, and then we were able to use that to produce a 1/3,000 scale map.”
That project served as the cadets’ final project, and being able to consider the details around how they could and would capture and deliver such detailed and accurate info was more powerful than the deliverable itself. It’s something that was just as prevalent at Virginia Commonwealth University as it was at West Point.
“We want to integrate all the technology that’s available to us so that students can really get an understanding of how to acquire, process and interrogate those data rather than learning how to use a complex program or device,” Shuart continued. “What matters more are the workflows and datasets and how we answer questions associated with those data rather than the intricacies around specific pieces of hardware and software.”
Applying drone technology to answer questions that students are dealing with before and after they capture data is the real crux of the issue. Both classes are focused on the question and answer period that arises when a project is being planned. Students focus on coming up with a hypothesis, acquiring data and then processing it to provide analytical products.
These classes are meant to take a platform with sensors, collect data, process that data and then produce a final product that provides value and is associated with those original questions or issues.
The Future of Drones in the Classroom and for Students
The courses at both West Point and VCU are in their infancy, but the impact the technology is having in them and beyond is already being seen. Instead of working on a scale of 15 meter per pixel, it’s down to 2.5 cm per pixel in many cases. Many are beginning to scoff at one-foot resolution, and that kind of expectation is something that already goes beyond the classroom.
Part 107 has opened up countless opportunities for professionals to take advantage or drone technology, and those same opportunities are being realized in the classroom. Products like Drone2Map have caught up with the drone hardware developments, and it’s why these tools can be utilized in an off-the-shelf manner in the classroom. Because of the advantageous technological and legal landscape, more universities will be taking a closer look at how it can be incorporated.
“We have several grants and contracts integrating drone technology, so students can get experience in the classroom and it is immediately relevant in the real world,” Shuart said. “Students are leaving college with more relevant experience than they were 10years ago. They’re capable of running through these workflows with tools like Drone2Map. The technology is being used for things like airport inspections, environmental mitigation, but also in engineering and utility environments.”
Those sorts of uses are an indication of the maturation of the technology itself, since it’s not about the potential or capability of drones any longer. It’s about augmenting or improving a core need or function. Those are insights that will outlast any specific technology development and are the perfect thing to teach and learn in a classroom environment.
“It’s really about the proliferation,” Lt. Col. Ware concluded. “We’re starting to be able to use UAVs across a number of different disciplines. Our civil engineers have it and our cyber guys use it. The cyber guys are using it to figure out how to shoot down electric signals, so they’re using it for a different purpose but even that is proof of how abundant it’s becoming in various settings. What we see happening over time is that it will just become a standard part of equipment that we use for various courses, particularly on the science and engineering side.”
Thinking of drones as just another tool is a concept we’ve encountered elsewhere, but that in and of itself is a further illustration of the power of the technology. Just as professionals are looking to understand how UAVs can make an impact for them, universities are trying to figure out how they can do that same thing while making that process about more than a specific piece of technology.
Professionals, students and teachers are learning how to focus on getting what they need from drone datasets, and what they can then do with it. Ultimately, that’s the only thing that matters, regardless of the setting.