Some researchers at the University of Georgia have a new tool in their arsenal — drones.
The unmanned aerial vehicles are DJI Phantom 2 Vision quadcopters.
The camera-wielding machines give researchers an invaluable new vantage point, said Tommy Jordan, associate director of the Center for Geospatial Research.
“I made this amazing three-dimensional landscape from this thing, and never have we been able to do that before,” Jordan said. “I’m blown away by it.”
Jordan’s primary use of the Phantom UAV is for research, specifically at the Wormsloe Institute for Environmental History near Savannah collecting data on marsh health and the monitoring of butterfly gardens on the Georgia coast.
Before the drones, the department used satellite imagery and aerial photography.
“It gives us a lot more autonomy to collect the data,” Jordan said. “Frequency is the other thing, too. I can fly this thing multiple times a day. I can go from here today to the Botanical Gardens, to White Hall Forest, and then I can get in my car and go down to Savannah and fly down there, all in the same day.”
Instead of finding a contractor for one flight on a specific day in the future with little ability to redo the flight if something erred, Jordan can look outside and decide it’s a good day to go out and fly the drone.
The use of the drones will allow for new types of comparative variables to be used when monitoring the marshes or butterfly gardens, said Marguerite Madden, director of the Center for Geospatial Research.
“We can use time frames more relevant to what we’re studying,” she said, mentioning photos taken before and after the tide comes in relating to the marshes.
Jordan said the center bought the drone in February and put just under $2,000 into the project, including replacement parts, an iPad and software. A copilot uses the iPad to see what the camera attached to the drone sees during flight.
Julie Velásquez Runk, assistant professor of anthropology, received two of these quadcopters through a learning technologies grant in January.
The program funds projects for one year, supports the exploration and evaluation of new teaching methods, according to a UGA Today article.
Runk utilizes the drones in her new mapping course, “Anthropology of Landscape,” she wrote in an email.
“I think these have the potential to give a new level of sensory perspectives to landscapes,” Runk said in a later interview.
The usage of these drones is still limited due to ethical issues.
Runk said her drones came with very strict guidelines as where they could be used. So far, she said, her students will be using them in public spaces like parks to work on their projects.
“I think the really surprising thing [about the drones] is that they’re really loud,” she said. “They’re like a giant fly. It would be impossible to sneak up on someone.”
Jordan also mentioned concerns for unethical use of the machines, stating that the researchers would never think to cross onto a person’s private property while using the quadcopter.