Attack of the Drones! New perspectives on fieldwork learning

Image of a Phantom UAV

It’s Bug Season by Adam Meek CC-BY 2.0

News stories and viral videos about drones seem to crop up on a fairly regular basis but what does the emergence of this new technology mean for education?

I’ll start by saying that perhaps the proper term should be “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle” (UAV) rather than “Drone”. There’s debate about what the difference is but for some the main feature of a drone is that it is semi-autonomous. The devices I’m talking about here are remote controlled aircraft.

UAVs are pretty much “a thing” now but they are not uncontroversial. Aside from their military role people will be most familiar with the multi-copter style devices although fixed wing UAV’s have been in use for quite a while. They’ve been in the news recently over their potential use for Amazon deliveries as well as their contribution to international sporting events!

The rise of the civilian UAV is closely tied to the arrival of devices like tablets as control devices and small HD-capable cameras like the GoPro. A fairly robust set of equipment will cost you hundreds, rather than thousands.

That puts UAVs within the budgets of individuals and certainly education institutions.

UAVs in fieldwork

My interest in drones is about how they can enhance fieldwork and it’s not hard to see where the benefits might be. The ability to see landscapes from different perspectives can be very powerful, providing a useful mid-point between direct observation and full remote sensing.

UAVs with cameras could be a useful resource on a field trip for reaching hard-to-access landforms. This is useful for all students but will also be useful in supporting students with impaired mobility. This novel take on the selfie shows how a view of a landscape can be expanded using a UAV-mounted video camera.

Of course, photography and video only take you so far. Measurement is also important, which is where approaches like photogrammetry and 3d scanning come into play. Here the tools become much more advanced and therefore expensive but this video of a field trip to create a 3D rendering of the Matterhorn shows. You can see the results of the survey at about 2mins 50secs.

Considering another avenue, have a look at this video of “drone racing” Endor-style through a forest. It not only shows the maneuverability of these vehicles but also suggests what might be possible if you could combine the use of UAVs with 3d headsets like Oculus Rift for watching a live camera feed or captured recordings (see 1min 54secs).

Existing practice

There is already extensive practice in the use of UAVs for research and fieldwork. The list of speakers at the University of Exeter’s UAVs in Environmental Research event in July 2014 shows some of the people involved in this area, the breadth of applications and gives links to all the presentations.

The University of Worcester’s Institute of Science and the Environment also ran an event on Remote Sensing from Small Unmanned Aerial Systems in 2013. It was filled to capacity.

Addy Pope from the Go-Geo team at EDINA helpfully pointed me towards the work of Tim James at Swansea University who has been using UAVs to monitor the dramatic glacial calving process.



The starting point for UAV’s is in the hundreds of pounds. One of the most popular devices, particularly with amateur and semi-pro film makers is the Phantom UAV which seems to start at around £300 for some models but goes up nearer to £1000 for different packages. As the popularity of UAVs increases expect more choice to become available. I was intrigued by this open source UAV that was looking for funding on Kickstarter earlier this year. (Look at it’s funding target and what it eventually achieved! A measure of the popularity of UAVs?)

Technological limitations

Any UAV will be limited in terms of range and ability to function in difficult weather conditions. Battery life is also something you need to consider. For example, the senseFly eBee UAV has a flying time of only 50 minutes.

Safety (personal and equipment)

Safety is an important part of any fieldwork and using UAVs may help to avoid some more risky situations. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t want to place students anywhere near spinning rotor blades without properly trained staff and a full risk assessment! Operating in public spaces also brings risk to non-participants. There’s also a risk to the equipment, especially if the weather turns against you.

Legal aspects and privacy

As most consumer level UAVs are small and light they are exempt from most Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) rules on airworthiness but in commercial use cases permission may be needed. According to the CAA website, permission is not needed if “the aircraft will not be flown close to people or properties, and you will not get ‘valuable consideration’ (i.e. payment) from the flight.” This is obviously applicable only in the UK. Fieldwork undertaken abroad means checking things out with the local authorities. This article from The Next Web on the personal use of drones is a handy summary for the UK and US but if in doubt always check.

If geosciences aren’t your thing…

…maybe this more aesthetically creative use of UAVs will appeal. It’s quite lovely.

Almost as interesting is the Making off… video that goes with it.