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A bird's-eye view for mapping

New geography course introduces students to drones’ commercial/research applications

A stiff breeze is blowing, but you’d never know it watching the drone Alec Stover is flying on the south side of campus. Without the slightest wobble, the three-pound quadcopter hovers 60 feet high as Stover flicks a button, capturing a high-def image of a paper target on the ground.

It’s all part of “Introduction to Drones for Airborne Spatial Data,” a new geography course that gives University of South Carolina students an overview of aerial mapping with drones — and a leg up on using a technology that’s finding myriad commercial applications.

“Almost every government agency and numerous private companies have an interest or a market plan for using the technology,” says Michael Hodgson, a geography professor in the College of Arts and Sciences who is teaching the course. “But the number of experienced operators for small unmanned aerial systems who can plan missions, receive authorizations and permissions from civil authorities, then collect and process the imagery for user products is nil.”

Hodgson’s course isn’t intended to turn out experienced drone pilots, but it does give the students a taste of flying one and an understanding of all that drones can be used for. Teaching students to fly with commercial-level drones can be a logistical challenge, says Hodgson, given the permission requirements as well as numerous ‘do not fly’ zones, overhead power lines, meteorological conditions and other safety considerations. But he incorporates those regulations into the course so that students understand the vast difference between hobby and commercial drone flying.

“Flying the drone is really one small part of the entire process for using a drone for mapping purposes,” Hodgson says. “I want to give our students the opportunity to explore the use of drones for research and other applications, and I’m always hoping they will find the geographic information science field interesting — and maybe even become geographers.”

Ross O’Donnell, a geography junior, is interested in remote sensing, a field of geography that historically has relied on aircraft and satellites for ground imaging. Guest speakers for the course from the Civil Air Patrol, Richland County, Aiken County and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have shared how drones are being put to work in search missions, mapping landfills, roads, nature preserves and other infrastructure.

“I didn’t know anything about digital optics before this course,” O’Donnell says.

Tim Pieper, a senior anthropology major and geography minor, took the course because he wants to get cross-qualified with drones and use them in the archaeology field.

“I’ve seen documentaries about people flying drones over South America using LIDAR and finding new Aztec sites. I think it would be really beneficial to the labor side of archaeology instead of just digging test holes every 10 meters; you could evaluate the area you need to dig to determine more precise test hole spots. That’s my idea, less labor and more product for the amount of work you do.”

Stover, the student who was first in line to fly the drone on that windy day earlier this spring, is set to graduate in May. He’s got a job lined up to do mapping for a large realty company, using the geographic information science skills he’s attained.

“It’s a lot of fun to fly drones recreationally, but I wanted to delve further because this technology is going to be implemented in my field heavily in the next couple of years. I know I’m going to be learning more about it and expected to know how to use it, so I figured this was a great first step. I’m glad I did because I had no idea how strict the laws are for commercial drone use.”