VCU’s new senseFly eBee drone is a far cry from the $50 quad copters taking to the air in backyards across the country, and not just because of its $50,000 price tag. For one thing, current FAA regulations require Environmental Technology Coordinator William Shuart to get a pilot’s license in order to direct VCU’s fixed-wing craft. “The aircraft I have is one and a half pounds and made of foam, and yet in order to get a license to fly that, I’ve got to learn to fly a 1,200-pound Cessna,” said a chuckling Shuart, whose background is in ecoinformatics — including geographic information systems and remote sensing.
But that effort will pay off, as the unmanned aerial system, which works with a range of cameras from thermal to multispectral, will produce images in which every pixel represents 4 square centimeters on the ground, while also giving researchers at VCU much more flexibility when they’re hoping to gather data on a specific landscape.
“The challenge with environmental phenomena is that they don’t wait for satellites to get in range,” Shuart said. “Now, essentially on a moment’s notice, we can plan an acquisition and collect data.” Satellite images that could cost as much as $100,000 when pulled by a satellite company can now be gathered on a researcher’s schedule, often at a higher resolution.
In addition to survey-quality images that will allow a precise comparison of current landscapes with historical data and photographs — “If you’re going to analyze whether or not a pixel has changed from 1950 to 2014, you have to be absolutely sure that that pixel is in the same place in both of those data sets,” said Shuart, whose work has focused on looking at large environmental problems of particular landscapes over time — the UAS will also provide an elevation profile for the area being examined, a digital surface model that allows you to examine a data set in three dimensions.
“If we’ve got a researcher who’s looking for edge habitat, for birds that like understory-type trees, we can literally take a data set and turn it on its side,” Shuart said. “We can look and see from a three-dimensional perspective where those trees are and potentially the health and types of trees on a scale that is unprecedented.”
In addition to gathering information from the air, Shuart, who’s also the director of information technology at the VCU Rice Rivers Center, manages a lot of the data-gathering equipment at the center, from a gauge that records tide levels at its pier every 15 minutes, offering a measure of how that fluctuates over time, to telemetry systems at three locations that record any tagged sturgeon (as well as other tagged marine life), sending the data back to a server at VCU, one of nine that Shuart maintains.
Though he entered college thinking he’d illustrate science texts, Shuart has instead found himself pursuing a different art, employing technology to gather data and make that same information accessible — and useful — to researchers.
“Our students are now entering a field that in terms of technology, their job is going to require them to be familiar with all of these different tools,” said Shuart, who teaches graduate-level classes in applying technology to questions of science. “They don’t need to be experts, but they need to understand them.”