Flying High – How to Drone in the Classroom

Associate professor Craig O’Neill is not your average lecturer; and teaching ‘Drone Mounted Geophysics’ not your average subject. I sat down with Craig to find out where the industry is headed and how to run a class of students flying drones.

So how do you manage a class of students flying drones and do you have any tips for tutors wishing to do the same?

Drones are quite heavily legislated, so the first thing you have to understand is the laws about flying drones. For our purposes we’re flying in non-urban areas, so in rural Australia, out in the paddock basically. All our students actively working on this are postgrad research level, so these guys are already the cream of the crop, they’re the best that we had coming through. They’re very sharp, motivated and really interested in this project and they’re kind of just a delight. They picked up the drone and learnt more about it in the first few hours playing with it than I ever knew, so they’re not a problem at all. Sometimes it’s a case of them teaching me how it all works, which is good.

How do the students benefit from this type of education?

For the Earth and Planetary students, the game is changing for these guys. They’re coming through in a difficult period for employment in some ways because they’re in a mining slump so a lot of traditional geology, ‘beat a rock with a hammer jobs’, are not there at this point. But they’re also coming through at a point where the industry is changing in many ways. Skills like data analytics, data mining and big data science are coming to the fore a lot in the earth sciences. Geophysics is kind of going through a little mini revolution too. By developing their skillset in this arena and actually creating their own tools they can lead the charge in this, they’re positioning themselves well in a really competitive market place. They’re not just people who can use what’s there, but have potential to become the guys who are driving where the industry is going – rather than relying on the industry ups and downs for employment.

Off-the-shelf DJI Phantom Quadcopters are modified by Craig and his students.

Have you used new Learning and Teaching Methods?

Absolutely, the trick for us is taking non-technical background students and bringing their level of numeracy and technical abilities up to where it needs to be to contribute to this. A few years ago we had a learning and teaching grant to buy a bunch of Arduino, they’re like mini computers. You can hook sensors to them, build your own electrical circuits, load up code and get them to run. We spent a few weeks in third year actually building our own geophysics gear using this stuff and the students come out of that saying ‘I’ve learnt so much in the last two weeks that my mind is expanding’. So they’re really moving on from being users of technology to actually being creators of it, which is a world of difference.

In some point in their career nearly every geophysicist ends up out in the field with a split cable or something has gone wrong electronically, and you’re 100 k’s from anywhere and you have to fix it yourself, so having that very basic electronics understanding is so critical in our field.

How is it different to what you have done before?

These things aren’t easy to teach, because you have to have a large set of skill levels within the students. I’m a massive fan of hands on education at this point so we give them the kits, we let them work on it, we let them test things to see what works, really getting them to create. I think that’s the most important thing because they have an ownership of what they’re doing. They’re forced in many ways to develop their knowledge up to that basic level in order to complete what tasks we’ve actually set out for them. I think you never really learn until you’re doing, and in this case they’re doing right from the start, so a lot of the learning, the theory, makes a lot more sense when you’re actually there with a circuit on your hand putting it together.

How has this influenced the students?

I guess in some ways, as an educator, you do run the risk sometimes of being pushed in from what the industry is doing and so one of the things that I’m really proud of in our geophysics group is we have a lot of industry contacts. The NSW President of the Australian Society of Exploration in Geophysics, Mark Lackie is upstairs, so the students are exposed to that. They get to go to the monthly meetings, they get to see for themselves the way the industry is going. So the way in which we influence the students is being a little bit ahead of the curb so that we understand both where the research opportunities are and the way in which the industry is going to be moving, then trying to point them in that direction. They’re really doing stuff that’s progressing our capabilities and our research, it’s going to be helping a lot of people but it also positions them in a really good spot for where they’re going to be afterwards.

“They’re really doing stuff that’s progressing our capabilities and our research, it’s going to be helping a lot of people but it also positions them in a really good spot for where they’re going to be afterwards.”

How many industries can benefit from this technology?

I think the industrial applications of drones are really just starting to be explored now, already in disaster response, they’re being used all the time, for mapping traffic flow. People are out there taking really interesting drone footage, of whale migration, whale hunting patterns. I’ve seen them used for fires, so the emergency response guys have been flying infrared cameras on drones into fires and actually looking at where the hot patches were, to understand what’s burning where, without having to send people into that environment. They’re starting to come into play in so many aspects of life and I guess they’re going to change a lot of aspects of how we do stuff, certainly in the mapping sciences. I can foresee in agriculture it will be used to look at crop rotations, infestations, pesticide distributions, for water, looking at waterways, remote mapping of soil, and if you can mount interesting things in it like spectroscopes you could look at things like mineral composition, water composition of the soil you’re flying over. It’s early days but there’s so many potential applications for this stuff.

Will it create new jobs that haven’t existed before?

Yes, I think so. I think Geophysics is moving into Realms where it hasn’t traditionally ever been deployed. Mitigation is one example of that, you wouldn’t normally go out into an earthquake zone in Italy and do geophysics, it’s too dangerous. You can deploy a drone though, because it’s fast, it’s cheap and no one gets hurt from the drone flying around, so geophysics will be moving into that arena for instance because it can do it, without putting anyone at risk, and I think that’s going to be the attraction with Drones. It’s creating new opportunities in a whole bunch of arenas where geophysics probably didn’t contribute as much as it could have before.

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