May 14 2019

Eye in the sky: Environmental monitoring with drones

a group watches as two men turn a drone on

Preparing the drone for a flight survey (Photo Molly Tankersley).

people look at a high-accuracy GPS device

Gabriel Wolken instructing students on how to setup a GPS base station (Photo Croix Fylpaa).

A group of people look at a survey point on the ground

Surveying ground control points across campus. These points were used to create a drone-derived map of the UAS campus (Photo Croix Fylpaa).

A man presents in front of a slide showing aerial imagery

Christian Kienholz talking about the flight planning software (Photo Croix Fylpaa).

a person places a checkered target on the ground

Deploying ground control points across the study area  (Photo Croix Fylpaa).

aerial images of a river

Drone-derived map from 2019 (left side, created during the class) versus airplane-derived map from 2013 (right side), revealing rapid change across the study area.

AK CASC's Christian Kienholz taught a class at the University of Alaska Southeast titled "Using Drones for Environmental Monitoring." Together with Eran Hood and Gabriel Wolken, he trained students to use drones for aerial mapping and answer relevant environmental science questions from the maps students created. During the week-long class, participants planned and conducted several drone campaigns, choosing camera and drone settings appropriate for the task at hand. They also learned a technique known as Structure-From-Motion Photogrammetry, which they applied to model surface topography from photos captured during drone flights. Students were also taught how to use high accuracy GPS equipment to survey ground control points, which are needed to improve the accuracy of drone-derived surface models.

The main class project focused on fluvial erosion above Mendenhall River’s Brotherhood Bridge. Erosion has evolved rapidly in that area, especially since 2018, when Mendenhall River cut off a meander bend during a glacier lake outburst flood. By comparing the data they collected via drone to data from past years, the students determined recent river erosion rates and assessed potential future erosion.

“It was rewarding to teach students a range of new skills and to let them apply these skills to real-world problems in the University’s backyard. I think the course gave students a taste of the work conducted in an environmental consulting firm,” said instructor Kienholz. He hopes the 2019 campaign marked the beginning of a data time series that will be continued in future classes.