UAVs in University Research

A massive leap in technology, a decrease in prices and a boon in the availability of open-source platforms to help process the data quickly and cheaply have allowed more widespread adoption of UAV technology.


Dr. Susan Wang, a geography and remote sensing professor at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, remembers clearly when she first began to be interested in UAVs. “It was 2016, and professor John Jensen, a Carolina distinguished professor emeritus in our Department of Geography, defined drone technology as ‘personal remote sensing,’” Wang said.

Before that, she was heavily reliant on satellites for her data, which meant she didn’t have control over the time or location of the satellite images. If she wanted something high-resolution, it was expensive, and of course she was always at the mercy of the weather. A cloudy day meant no images at all.

“I’d been struggling with all these challenges in my remote sensing research for many years,” Wang said. “Then I learned about personal remote sensing, and it’s very attractive. With a cheap drone, we can go get our data any day, any time, and we can do our analysis for whatever condition we may want.”

She said, with all the benefits of UAV technology, it’s no surprise that these unmanned ariel vehicles now seem to be ubiquitous. Countless companies are offering services based on data and analysis from UAV research, and university programs are preparing students with the skills they need to become marketable in a rapidly growing field—skills that can often pave the path to immediate employment. “More students are graduating with drone technology expertise, and the opportunities are there,” Wang said.

Widespread Adoption of UAV

Once the purview of the military and prohibitively expensive, UAVs are now common in areas as diverse as first response and retail. A massive leap in technology, a decrease in prices and a boon in the availability of open-source platforms to help process the data quickly and cheaply have allowed more widespread adoption of UAV technology. As a result, new startup companies are entering the field, government agencies are training their staff in UAV piloting and data analysis, and academia has access to a new research tool that’s nothing short of revolutionary.

“I would say that, overall, the costs have gone down, and the technology has evolved faster in the last three years than it had in the previous 10 before that,” said Dr. Narcisa Pricope, associate professor of geography at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. “We have made huge advances, from collection to processing to computing power.”

In 2018, Pricope led an intensive three-day UAV workshop focused on regulations and FAA certification, planning missions, and collecting and processing data. Five of her students were from the local public utility company, wanting to learn the technology so they could use it to monitor their tanks and water filtration systems. Since then, they’ve hired three students from Pricope’s program. “They now have a full-blown drone program, and they’re taking interns,” she said. “These jobs didn’t exist three years ago. Drone technology is allowing them to cut costs and monitor and collect data to make better decisions.”

Dr. Trung Tran, an assistant professor in geography in the Department of Intelligence Studies, Geospatial Science, Political Science and History at Fayetteville State University, said the trend with UAVs is part of a larger movement around mapping. “People have now realized how important geographic information is because everything’s going to be related in some way on the earth’s surface,” he said. “And the fastest way to collect that information is with a drone.”

New Collaborations

The pervasiveness of UAV technology has also spawned innovative collaborations among UAV users. In South Carolina, for example, the South Carolina Interagency Drone Users Consortium (SCiDUC) is a nonprofit association of almost 200 UAV pilots, facilitators, and decision-makers in more than 50 different public agencies. The organization educates members on cutting-edge technology and regulatory changes while encouraging participants to share data to save time and improve cost efficiency.

“If one agency has some data covered, there’s no need for another agency to repeat the process,” said Wang, who sits on the board of SCiDUC. The group holds a quarterly meeting for updates and idea exchange.

Tran said he’s also interested in pursuing collaborative relationships within the community. While he was a Ph.D. student, his professor created a database that allowed people to submit images that helped validate researchers’ satellite images. “If you say this particular pixel represents grass, you have to validate that data,” Tran said. “And the way you validate it is by going to look at it.” Of course, this creates challenges when the location is far away, but locals can upload photos, tag them with coordinates, and make them accessible for researchers.

Regardless of the topic or industry, academics agree that there are now countless applications for UAV technology, from mapping gravestones in a local cemetery to solving pressing global problems like climate change and social justice. Just a few years ago, Wang described her job as technical—focused on image analysis and modeling. But in this new era, she’s not content to simply work with data. “Now I apply my data, extract information and merge it for real-time problem solving,” she said. “I feel that’s the mission of geospatial intelligence—to bridge all this geospatial knowledge and apply it to real-world human activities.”

 Dr. Narcisa Pricope

Pricope has been passionate about geography her entire life, but it wasn’t until she was an undergraduate student that she discovered GIS. “It was truly revolutionary to me that I could use data to make a decision about where to start a business or develop a new type of service,” she said.

Since then, Pricope, director of the USGIF GEOINT Certificate program at UNCW, has acquired a fleet of mapping UAVs that speed up field data collection and help her with research not only in North Carolina but in Southern Africa and Peru, where her mapping work has included vegetation, different types of land covers and urban heat signatures from homes.

Pricope, an expert in land change science, water resources, and climate change (and a 2019 Fulbright recipient), is currently focused on three projects:

  • One looks at the impacts of drought and land degradation in South America and Sub-Saharan Africa, and how geospatial tools can help these countries report on such impacts.
  • Another, funded by the North Carolina Department of Transportation, explores ways that transportation departments across the country can use UAV technology in project planning and implementation to reduce costs and accelerate decision-making.
  • The third focuses on coastal vulnerability and resilience in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. The project aims to find better ways to implement green infrastructure into city planning to decrease vulnerability to flooding and sea-level rise.

Given the changing climate—and, for example, the increasing number of extreme weather events, hurricanes, and storm surges—Pricope said there’s a greater need for geospatial professionals to work on important areas such as coastal flooding.

“We can’t train people fast enough,” Pricope said, noting that she gets a significant number of requests from city and local governments for interns skilled in geospatial analysis. She works closely with undergraduate and graduate students to understand their geospatial passions and has been thrilled to see many of them thriving in the industry. She said her undergraduate students are getting jobs in the $50,000 to $60,000 salary range straight out of school. While some students have continued their studies in doctoral programs, others have gone on to work in development, conservation, public health, and epidemiology. Still, others have been hired by companies that deal with precision agriculture and mining. One student, she said, is a resilience analyst, doing work similar to what she’s doing in her coastal project. Another former student is working as a geospatial analyst for the Environmental Protection Agency, and a handful have joined a local geospatial intelligence company just in the last year.

“That’s a big deal, because this local company is a defense contractor, and they find our students well-prepared enough to hire them,” Pricope said. “There’s a lot of demand right now for students who are trained in the drone technology field because that field seems to be exploding at the moment. The opportunities are endless.”

Dr. Susan Wang

Wang, director of the DBAR International Center of Excellence on Big Earth Data for Coasts, has focused her research on bio-environmental remote sensing, GIS, and spatial analysis. Her past research has included land use and land cover mapping, looking at weed invasion, drought and oak decline, rice mapping, and prairie grassland conservation.

Co-director of the USGIF GEOINT Certificate program at USCC, Wang is leading a university-funded project that will investigate UAV deployment to assess dam safety. The project team, made up of researchers from the university’s geography, engineering, biology, and history departments, is looking at the tree cover above privately owned and aging dams, which is critical for determining the root structure and risks.

“In 2015, South Carolina had a 1,000-year flood, and more than 50 earth dams in the state failed,” Wang said. “So I started talking about the condition of these dams and that it was time-consuming and costly to assess them for safety. We proposed flying drones over the earth dams so we could tell the landowners what the dams look like, the condition and steps we suggest.”

The project began in September 2019 with the team getting permission to fly over the properties and analyze UAV data. That data can tell researchers about tree location, health, and danger for future flood events. (If trees are dying, for example, the decayed roots will leave a large cavity in the soil that can fill with water in a flood.) Wang uses A.I. to identify the trees.

Using a flight mission app called DroneDeploy, Wang programs a flight that captures images looking straight down and diagonally from the perimeter of the area. “Adding those oblique pictures gives a better 3D configuration,” Wang said. In the lab, she uploads an average of 150 images per flight for image analysis and can explore the 3D tree canopy with information that she wouldn’t be able to retrieve from satellite images, such as tree height.

Wang, who teaches courses including Principles of Remote Sensing and Remote Sensing Modeling and Analysis, said her current and former students are working on important UAV projects. One of her current Ph.D. students, a USGIF scholarship award winner, is conducting research to monitor saltmarsh areas in the South Carolina coastal wetland. A recent graduate, who now works for a geospatial intelligence company in St. Louis, worked with Wang on the dam project. Wang’s colleague Dr. Michael Hodgson created an Introduction to Drone and Airborne Spatial data analysis course that has been a draw for current students.

“This is a very successful course, attracting students from all different departments,” Wang said. “They learn how drones could be helpful in their own disciplines. We are trying to expand our opportunities to attract more students, but also to get students to be better prepared for this geospatial workforce.”

Dr. Trung Tran

Tran has been working in GIS for nearly two decades. Much of his work has been based on Landsat and MODIS satellite data, but he’s become increasingly interested in UAV technology, which can deliver data when he needs it and at the resolution he desires—two things he can’t always count on from satellites.

“With drones we can overcome all that,” he said. “If we need the data at a certain place, bring out a drone and fly it. We can have the data any time we want, and we can have it at a very high resolution.” The only disadvantage of working with the UAVs, he said, is that it’s laborious and costly to cover large areas. The solution: benefit from both technologies by merging data from UAVs and satellites.

Tran, the coordinator of the Geospatial Science Program and director of the USGIF GEOINT Certificate program at Fayetteville State University, is currently working on a project looking at heat islands, urbanized places that experience higher temperatures than the surrounding areas. Using a blend of UAV and satellite data, he’s exploring the impact of climate change on these areas. “With drones, attaching a thermal sensor, I believe that we can have a better understanding of the temperature of the spot,” Tran said. “We’ll start with satellite data and map the heat of an urban area to identify those spots. Then we’re going to fly a drone over them, which will provide the data at a finer scale, so we can verify the accuracy and look for patterns within those spots.”

He noted that one limitation with this research is that cities are filled with people, and the FAA regulations prohibit the flying of small unmanned aircraft over humans. Tran said applying for a waiver from the FAA for a specific area is a possibility.

This month, Tran is also working with the city of Fayetteville to map a downtown cemetery. In the past, he said, researchers might have mapped headstones by visiting every stone, using GPS, and perhaps entering data into an iPad. But using UAVs will efficiently provide data on the number of stones and where they’re located. He’s currently looking into the optical parameters of the UAVs to understand if they can clearly capture objects as small as headstones. The trick is to fly high enough to avoid obstacles like trees but low enough to guarantee finer resolution. “I believe we’ll have to fly over multiple times—different altitudes and angles,” Tran said. “Having the spatial data accessible will ultimately help the city better understand its history.”

This semester, Tran is teaching a class on aerial photo interpretation, in which he talks about the methodology in interpreting UAV images. He works with students largely on mapping applications and expects those graduating from the program to be able to plan for flight missions. “They will be able to set up a system that allows drone aircraft to capture data with high accuracy, gather data into remote sensing software, and process it to generate some sort of geographic information,” he said.

Graduates from his program have gone on to work in the field, including one who is now an imagery analyst at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. “We’re very proud of him,” Tran said.

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