Practical use of mini and micro-Unmanned Aerial Vehicles for the Environmental Sciences

This blog post is written by 3rd year PhD student Ros Nicholls from the School of Geography, Geology and the Environment at the University of Leicester. Ros’ research is about sediment transport in rivers. You can find out a bit more about what she gets up to on her fieldwork in this blog post. In this post, she tells us about a NERC Advanced Training Short Course (ATSC) she went on in the summer.

At the end of August, I headed off to a surprisingly sunny Oban for a week to learn all about Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones as they are more commonly known as. One aspect of my PhD involves taking pictures of exposed sections of river beds using a camera. Although the camera I use is handheld, lots of applications similar to mine use cameras mounted on drones, so I went on the course to find out a bit more about drones and how they could be used to help with research like mine.

Oban sunset.jpg
Proof it doesn’t always rain in Scotland!

The course started with a fish and chip supper on the Monday evening. You know it’s going to be a good course when it starts with dinner! We were introduced to the course leaders and had a look at various different pieces of equipment – drones come in all manner of shapes and sizes! After a long day of driving, it was nice to have a relaxed start to the course before the real work started.

The Scottish Association for Marine Science, Oban – where the course was held

Tuesday was a long day of lectures, but it was all information we needed to know before we began any flying missions – after all, the aim for the course was to provide us with the knowledge to undertake aerial data collection campaigns safely, legally and successfully. We learnt a lot about the comprehensive Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) regulations related to flying drones, as well as the type of data which can be collected with drones. Perhaps quite naively I hadn’t really thought about all the regulations there would be associated with using drones! However, with the rise in popularity of drones, there is a huge wealth of resources available to help make sure you are aware of the regulations related to flying drones, including the CAA CAP 722 (official regulations) and Drone Safe (very accessible resource).

Campus with a view
A campus with a view

On Wednesday, we were able to put into practice everything we had spent learning the day before as we prepared for outdoor flight missions over Dunstaffnage Bay. The sun was shining, and it was a glorious setting to be spending time in. Our first task was to do a site survey to check for potential hazards around the area. We had to check for various things including potential obstructions (trees, lakes, buildings etc.), presence of livestock, whether any public rights of way crossed the survey area, a suitable place for emergency landings etc. These kind of checks before carrying out a flight help minimise the risk of flights going wrong, which is obviously really important!

Once we had done the site survey, we were allocated various tasks in our group to deal with potential issues we had come across. As you have to ensure that you keep 50m away from people, my task was to stand at one end of the bay on the public footpath and ask any members of the public if they could wait until the drone had landed before walking across the beach. I had a very obliging gentleman appear on the footpath who happily waited 10 minutes while we carried out our flight. It provided some great opportunity for engagement, and I think the man went away knowing a lot more about drones than he did before he came across us!

Although our data was collected using a pre-planned flight path, and so as such, the drone didn’t need much piloting, once we had collected the data, we were all allowed a go at flying a drone ourselves. I was quite nervous because it’s an expensive piece of kit to be flying over water, but I quickly found out they are surprisingly stable. And, most importantly, if you let go of the controls, the drone hovers nicely in the air!  That afternoon, we processed the data we had collected, and made a cool 3D model of the bay. It’s amazing how quickly you can go from collecting data to having a result.

With our outdoor mission successfully ticked off, Thursday was spent flying an indoor mission at a sports centre. A scenario was set up behind the Tracey Mountains, and in our small groups, we were set various survey tasks which we had to carry out to find out what was in Terra Incognita. I won’t go into too much detail because I don’t want to spoil the surprise for anyone else who ends up going on the course (it is running again next August for anyone who might be interested), but it was a fun day which the academics had put a lot of thought into! The main aim of the indoor flight missions was to allow us to try out different sensors which can be added to drones, and the effect that adding weight to a drone has on its ability to fly. Despite a few engineering issues, we successfully surveyed Terra Incognita and made some interesting discoveries!

To round the course up on Friday, the three groups had to work together to make presentations for a multi-disciplinary consortium bid for funding for further drone-based research in Terra Incognita. The presentations demonstrated just how much can be achieved in such a short time period!

Thank you very much to the organisers and course tutors for this brilliant opportunity, and also to NERC for funding this experience.

If you are interested in finding out if there’s an ATSC which might be useful for your research, click here to see the list of courses on offer in 2017 and 2018.



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