Drones Assuming a Larger Role in University Research

In the Spring 2017 issue of Duke Magazine, Scott Huler writes about the many ways in which drones are being utilized by researchers at Duke University. At the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort, North Carolina, drones are used for many purposes ranging from photography of marine animals, weather and mapping to other oceanographic research and observation needs. The same autopilot system that guides the drones guides an autonomous ground rover, boat and submersible.

The capabilities of these new technologies for changing the dynamics in ocean research has led to the creation of a Marine Conversation Ecology Unoccupied Systems Facility which focuses on the use of these systems for mapping coastlines, counting species, examining ecosystem health and productivity, measuring animal health, and even doing marine archaeology. It’s the first facility of its kind for universities and the first that the FAA has approved for using drones in marine research. There’s even a Twitter feed, @MarineUAS, that provides photos and examples of some of the ways that drones are being used to enhance marine research.

Drones not only carry cameras (regular, 3D, and infrared) but other instruments as well. Unmanned flights are relatively inexpensive and can be conducted frequently, and routinely.   Computer programs are written to analyze photographs, saving grad student time as well as enhancing accuracy of the analysis. The scientists at the Marine Lab have hosted workshops and courses on how to utilize drones in research.

Huler provides insights into other departments at Duke and some of the drone applications that they’re researching or developing. At the Human and Autonomy Lab (HAL), for example, one PhD student is studying the development of drones that will carry people. As more and more drones populate the sky, an infrastructure including command centers to regulate and direct the traffic will be necessary. While computer systems will collect the data and monitor drone locations in real time, humans will be necessary to understand and manage the systems.

The article about Duke’s drone activities makes clear that technology utilization is becoming more interdisciplinary. While marine labs have utilized technology for many years, the utilization of technologies that can be deployed elsewhere (such as for archaeology digs) is providing more opportunities for multi- department collaborations.   I’m truly excited to learn about the continuing evolution and integration of technology into processes that enhance and improve so many facets of our lives and environment. As lessons from this research are integrated into classrooms and curriculums at other educational institutions, it can only expand the number of ways in which we utilize these technologies.

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