Students Take the Driver’s Seat in Drone-Enabled Geospatial Data Analysis
An exclusive resort tucked away in the hills around the sleepy upstate town of Callicoon, New York, was the backdrop for an innovative approach to field exercises by a group of Columbia College undergraduates who traveled there April 4‒5. Led by CIESIN senior systems analyst/GIS developer Kytt MacManus and teaching assistant Juan Nathaniel as part of the curriculum for a Columbia College class, “Spatial Analysis for Sustainable Development,” the students operated drones to collect data on nighttime lights, terrain, vegetation, and 3-D modelling. The outcome was a student-created ARCGIS story map detailing their analysis.
The use of drones was a major step forward from MacManus’s field trip four years ago to Black Rock Forest Consortium in Cornwall, New York, where students collected primary geospatial data using global positioning systems (GPS) units, ArcGIS Collector (a mobile app), and cell phones, and took aerial photographs using balloons and kites.
MacManus has long been intrigued by the wide-ranging possibilities for applying drones to research. He is especially keen on the way drones “democratize” access to data in an unprecedented way, by reducing the cost and complexity of acquiring data. “By using drones, developing countries, startups, and small organizations can make really big changes in how they collect data,” he says. “Data collection becomes accessible to individuals. You can do high frequency measurements every day as opposed to when you hire a company and might have to wait months or even years for your data.”
MacManus is enthusiastic about positioning his students to use this new technology to extend their career and research options. His plans include a proposal for a project collaborating with other social sciences researchers to support communities in data acquisition and literacy.
The field work was made possible through a grant from the 2021 Provost Emerging Technology Grant for the proposal “Drones and AR/VR for 3D Modelling in GIS,” which supported the purchase of the equipment. Funding from the Climate School’s Earth Institute Course Support program covered travel and accommodation.