Drones bring new dimension to geographic research

Drones being used by University of Calgary

[Editor’s Note: Chris Hugenholtz, associate professor and drone researcher in the University of Calgary’s geography department, believes it’s important for their students to become certified drone operators.]

This post originally appeared on https://www.ucalgary.ca/utoday/issue/2016-08-12/drones-bring-new-dimension-geographic-research.

From monitoring glaciers in the high Arctic or surveying the impact of floods here in Calgary, the use of drones — also called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — in geographical research has grown significantly in recent years.

In the University of Calgary’s geography department, the use of small drone aircraft for mapping and measuring changes of the Earth’s surface and atmosphere are the driving force behind a number of research and applied projects.

To ensure this technology is incorporated appropriately — and safely — in their research, a group of geography graduate students completed a four-day professional ground school course this summer so that their drone research skills are balanced with a detailed knowledge of airspace rules, regulations, and best practices for drone piloting.

Important to become capable, certified pilots

“Small drones are becoming key tools in our research and teaching programs in geography, and it’s incumbent on us to balance cutting edge R&D with safe and responsible piloting skills,” says Chris Hugenholtz, associate professor and drone researcher in the Department of Geography. “Drones are transforming a number of research and commercial sectors across Canada and contributing to the economy so, in addition to the research and applied training experience our students receive, we believe it’s also important that they become capable and certified drone operators,” he adds.

Matt Stambaugh, a GIS master’s student in the department, organized and completed the 32-hour professional certification course along with eight other graduate students. The course is the first of its kind to be offered on campus. Stambaugh saw it as an opportunity to boost his experience as a pilot with more focused material about drone operations in Canada.

“Drones can be relatively easy to operate, which might cause some people to overlook the rules and regulations governing their operation in Canadian airspace,” says Stambaugh. “The course covered a broad range of material, helped focus our skills, and highlighted some operating procedures that will increase our confidence and due diligence.”

Hugenholtz, who has six years’ experience in research and commercialization projects with drones, will be including pilot training elements in an upcoming drone-based mapping course slated for fall 2016.

Drones a tool for solving problems

“Ideas for this course have been brewing for years, but I think it’s been important to hold off until now so that we can draw on our research mileage and flying experience and offer students a comprehensive training opportunity,” he says. “We’re interested in drones because they are a tool for solving problems, and we want our students to learn where, when, and how to use drones safely to solve problems.”

While there is no requirement for geography students to complete this type of training now, Hugenholtz expects drone training to become an integral part of geography studies moving forward.

“There are elements that can’t be easily understood simply by reading a manual or website; there are no shortcuts,” Hugenholtz says. “Further, Transport Canada regulations for drones are evolving, likely requiring operators to demonstrate knowledge of piloting and airspace regulations in the near future — training will build competency and enable our students to succeed when the changes take effect.”

All students who completed the ground school received their Transport Canada Restricted Radio Operator Certificate with Aeronautical Qualification. The ground school training course was offered by a Calgary-based aviation safety investigator and auditor.


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