Learning About Drone Mapping By: Terry Callahan

What’s it like to be a drone pilot and capture aerial photos for research? What flight skills are needed? What are safety concerns? Anna Windle, graduate research assistant at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) at Horn Point Laboratory in Cambridge, recently presented programs on drone mapping for participants (ages 9-12) at the Talbot County Free Library.

Remote sensing is the ability to acquire data or information on an object or area without any physical contact. Using the remote sensing capacity of drones and satellites, Anna analyzes data and imagery that are collected from attached sensors for environmental research. “Specifically, I will be using specialized sensors on drones to better understand water quality in the Chesapeake Bay. I think that remote sensing is an extremely effective way of collecting data, covering more land than one could by foot or boat. I’ve always been a very visual learner, and I think observing an environment from an aerial view allows scientists to answer questions in new and different ways.”

Drones may seem to be an advanced topic for children, but not so. Anna says, “I am passionate about introducing science to students to elevate their appreciation for the possibilities available for careers that can positively impact our planet. The drone mapping workshop provides students a hands-on experience that replicates the innovative research of scientists in their own watershed. Participants gain valuable confidence in handling technology, inspiring them to pursue STEM education in the future.

“At the beginning of the workshop, I’m always surprised by how many hands go up when I ask the question, ‘How many of you have flown a drone before?’ More and more kids are becoming exposed to this type of technology.”

Since the participants would be flying drones indoors, there were some challenges. Senior Youth Services Librarian Laura Powell coordinated the program with Anna. Laura said, “The space for the program and determining the optimal number of participants was challenging. To fly drones inside requires a certain amount of air space, and roominess, plus plenty of focused attention on young learners engaged in flying drones, so we limited the number of participants to 15, and offered 2 programs (instead of one) to accommodate community interest,” said Laura. “Anna included a section on drone safety and regulation, which was key to the safety of the program as well.”

For the second half of the program, participants were placed in groups and rotated the roles of pilot, co-pilot, and chief reporter. Anna said, “As they stand behind the safety zone line of the drone flying space, they are always giddy with excitement. When we count down from 3 for take-off, the room is always full of ‘Whoa!!!’ It doesn’t take long for the participants to understand the controls of the drone.”

Next came programming to allow the drones to fly by themselves. “When I explain that they themselves will be coding an autonomous mission in this workshop, I see their eyes widen. They think it is a task too complicated or obscure for them. However, after we practice manual flying, go over some instruction, and explore the kid-friendly app that uses block coding, they know what to do. It amazes me how quickly kids figure out technology. They’re used to handling smart phones, tablets, computers. I wish I knew how to code at their age.”

Laura added, “I enjoyed seeing the faces of the children lit up with excitement and enthusiasm, and also the thrill of their drone flights, which were full of the unexpected!” She said it was interesting to see children persevere in their struggle to land the drone on the landing pad, and not give up and also interesting to observe their skill in flying and landing drones improve in the short time span of an hour. “There were a few crashes, but they put the drones back together and replaced batteries as needed and kept going.”

Anna also talks about gender equality in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). “I make a point to encourage the girls in the room to take science and technology classes in high school or college and tell the boys to take them as well, but be supportive and encouraging for their sisters, cousins, and friends. We need an equal representation of men and women working together to try to solve some of the most pressing environmental issues we face today.”

Laura adds, “To learn more about drones and further interest, Horn Point is having an Open House on October 12, 11am – 4pm, Anna Windle will be there with a drone demonstration and it’s a great opportunity to explore STEM offerings in our community. Also, check out the library’s website for future STEM programs offered this Fall at www.tcfl.org.”