Data Drones

Data Drones

Unmanned aerial vehicles can be an efficient way to make maps and collect data.


8 - 12


Engineering, Geography, Geographic Information Systems (GIS)

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In 2010, Professor Joseph Hupy was in South Vietnam trying to map the site of the Battle of Khe Sanh, one of the most infamous battles of the Vietnam War. Attempting to survey the land, Hupy found his body covered in land leeches and cut by elephant grass, a tall tropical plant with razor-sharp edges. “It was kind of like that a-ha moment where oh boy, there has to be a different way of doing this and here it is.” Hupy’s “different way of doing things” was to map the land from above, rather than from ground-level. He quickly learned that using LIDAR, a remote sensing technology used to make high-resolution maps, was too expensive and probably impossible to use in rural Vietnam. What if he just used inexpensive, easily available technology to get the information he needed? Hi-Res, Low Cost Hupy brought the idea back to Wisconsin, where he is a geography and anthropology professor at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He found that with digital cameras, GPS receivers, and a basic unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), you can get lots of information without spending lots of money. (Another name for a UAV is drone.) “It is really this perfect storm of all of these different phenomena that have come together,” Hupy says. “Technology has gotten so cheap and so lightweight that now you can start putting that on a flying platform . . . The other factor coming into this is the fact that GPS technology has come so far that now you can have a fairly small GPS unit communicating with more or less a centralized computer. It is basically your autopilot motherboard.” Hupy was inspired to act. He formed Hupy UAS in 2011 with his wife, Christina. (UAS stands for “unmanned aerial systems.) The company utilizes everything from balloons and kites to rotocopters and fixed-wing UAVs to gather images or data from above. “It can be as low-tech as putting a camera on a string on a balloon or it can be as high-tech as putting these cameras on these crazy planes that have solar panels,” he says. Hupy has also been introducing his students to the possibilities of UAV technology. “On my end, I’m trying to give students that introduction of you can take really, really high-resolution imagery with crazy details for not a lot of money,” he says. “You don’t need satellites, and you don’t need to send that manned airplane from the airport.” Hupy says that fixed-wing UAVs really aren’t that different from the radio-controlled airplanes that you can buy in hobby shops. “What has happened is that the world of RC [radio controlled] and the world of what was a true UAV have crossed so much that there is this weird grey area,” he says. “RC is radio controlled, so you have your radio controller and you are flying that as a pilot. What turns an RC airplane into a true unmanned aerial vehicle is the ability for it to rely on its autopilot functionality.” Uses for UAVs Hupy and his new company recently got to employ some of this technology while doing some work at the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake near Ridgecrest, California. There, they used a fixed-wing UAV, which resembles an RC plane, to survey the area. Using the small flying device, the team was able to locate objects with an amazing three-centimeter accuracy. Such UAV technology could assist the military in pinpointing the presence of desert tortoises. Desert tortoises are a threatened species; if discovered, the military would halt operations in the area. “What they have done traditionally is they have sent people out on foot,” Hupy says. “They walk around on foot, and they just look for these [desert tortoise] holes. It is incredibly inefficient, and it is incredibly expensive. In this imagery we gathered, you can actually see the desert tortoise holes.” The car insurance industry is another place UAVs may have practical uses. “When there is an accident, right now in the insurance industry, they have to send out those people on the ground,” he continues. “They have to measure out, with their tape measures, all the different stuff with the accident. If they were able to shoot up this rotocopter [a small helicopter-like UAV], within five minutes they could take pictures and go back in the office and have the software do it [all the work] in minutes.” UAVs could also be used by home insurance companies after tornadoes, to survey the number of damaged buildings. The technology could help eliminate insurance fraud. “You could fly a UAV over the tornado’s path and save millions upon millions of dollars,” Hupy says. Irrigation districts are another industry that could benefit from the use of UAVs. Specifically, the aerial vessels could help companies assess how well their irrigation systems are working. “What I can do is I can send up this Y-6 [a type of rotocopter] to take a couple of quick photos and then provide for them in infrared so you can see vegetation health and how effective their irrigation system is,” Hupy says. Hupy is also excited by the possibility of doing smaller projects with just a camera and a balloon or a kite. For instance, say a community garden organizer or a small farmer wants some images of their land from above. “Take a balloon,” he says. “Make a rig and attach the camera. Put it up in the sky and take some pictures.” As an educator, Hupy emphasizes that students interested in UAVs should focus on knowing what to do with the data once it is collected. He notes that the cost of producing UAVs is low, but that there is a real need for people who can think spatially and know how to use geospatial computer software including geographic information systems (GIS) to process the information collected from the UAVs.

Fast Fact

Flight PlanHupy is a big supporter of UAVs but he notes that they are not always the best tools for the job. “I do want to stay away from the notion that UAVs are always better than manned aircraft, because over and over again, you can send out a manned aircraft—it depends on the resolution that you want—but a manned aircraft can still gather relatively cheap imagery if you are dealing with a very large area.”

Fast Fact

Fun FlightsHupy describes how students can do a fun and easy project with a simple unmanned aerial vehicle. “They would need an open space. For that high school class, get that kite and get that rig and get that cheap little Canon camera. And once a week, fly above your school grounds, fly up above that garden plot or whatever and then do a time sequence to where you can see the snow melt, you can see the grass greening, you can see the plants coming up in the garden. You can time lapse that, and you can turn it into a movie. And you can have a really cool project.”

Media Credits

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Stuart Thornton
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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