Drone mapping first for USC science students

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Drone mapping first for USC science students

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Dr Javier Leon with a new drone at USC.

10 January 2017

Imagery from flying drones will be used in USC’s Environmental Science degree this year as students learn the latest methods of mapping the physical geography of the local area, from underwater seagrass banks to farmland.

Lecturer in Physical Geography and drone pilot Dr Javier Leon, who coordinates USC’s Environmental Science program, is in command of six UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) for semester one from 27 February – and has some exciting ideas for the Biogeography course.

“USC will be the first university in Australia to train students to analyse the environment by combining cutting-edge technology like drones and the Cave,” Dr Leon said, referring to the 3D, immersive CAVE2TM facility on campus at Sippy Downs.

“Students will be exposed to the whole range of research activities, from data collection and sampling in the field with drones, through analysis and modelling, to visualisation of final outcomes.

“Biogeography is the science that aims to document and understand spatial patterns of biological diversity through time, and we want to investigate big questions such as, ‘how are urbanisation and climate change impacting the distribution of biodiversity?’”

Dr Leon is a qualified UAV controller and radio operator who has been flying drones to assist his USC research for more than two years, using remote-sensing cameras mounted on small drones weighing under 2kg. The models he’s currently using are DJI Phantom 3s.

His detailed photos and videos have examined a range of features on land and sea, with projects mapping kangaroo and koala locations, vegetation species, coral reef islands, beach erosion and nearshore bathymetry (ocean floor depth).

One video captures coastal erosion, dune blowouts, a bushfire and lakes on Fraser Island, ghost crab burrows at Peregian Beach, and gully erosion in a Townsville creek.

He said UAV use was surging across the country since last year’s changes to Civil Aviation Safety Authority regulations.

“We want USC first-year students to gain experience in analysing drone data to make the students more employable in a future where everyone will be adopting this technology to monitor almost any environmental science application,” he said.

“I already have two research students starting collaborative community projects that use drones to monitor soil erosion control measures on Glasshouse Mountains pineapple farms, and to monitor seagrass banks around the Noosa River.”

Dr Leon said drones were transforming scientific studies by enabling cheaper, quicker ways of recording multiple high-resolution images, compared to previous reliance on satellite and aeroplane sensing and/or manual fieldwork.

— Julie Schomberg

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