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Science and Innovations

New Generation of Research Drones Takes to the Skies in Northern Arizona

John Vogel/USGS

Scientists in northern Arizona have something new in their field kits: custom-made drones. Up until now, researchers strapped their scientific equipment to old military discards or simple hobby drones. Now they can order drones tailored for science.

Credit Melissa Sevigny
Teki Sankey and Dan Solazzo pose with the octocopter

Teki Sankey is an environmental scientist at Northern Arizona University (NAU). She used to rely on satellites to study forests and grasslands. Now, she uses drones. She’s about to show me how her eight-pound hovercraft lifts off, in a grassy field near Flagstaff. She flinches when a soccer ball sails in out of nowhere.

Credit Melissa Sevigny
NAU's octocopter

“Because the whole instrument costs a quarter of a million dollars, I don’t like to practice on it,” Sankey says, “[It] makes me very nervous, so I don’t let my students on practice on it very much.”  

But today, she hands the controller to her graduate student, Dan Solazzo. Solazzo powers up while Sankey keeps an eye on the battery levels.

This drone, called the “octocopter,” looks a bit like a big metal spider, six feet wide. It’s outfitted with two high-tech sensors: one that can record light in hundreds of wavelengths, and another that makes 3D images.

Credit Melissa Sevigny
The USGS fixed-wing aircraft

“This platform was custom-designed and it’s one of a kind,” Sankey says. “There are a lot of hobbyist-grade drones out there with simple sensors, and simple cameras, but for the kinds of science we want to do at NAU I wanted the sophisticated sensors.”  

Credit USGS
USGS scientists prepare to launch

That made the octocopter expensive, but Sankey says it’s worth it. Right now the drone helps her make 3D maps of the snowpack on the Kaibab National Forest.

Every place Sankey wants to fly a drone for research, it takes months, she says, sometimes more than a year, to get permission from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). That hasn’t stopped her.

Nor has it stopped another group of Flagstaff scientists who just unpacked two drones custom-ordered from a private company. Geoff Debenedetto is a hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey and a licensed drone operator. He turns on the hovercraft so I can hear how quiet it is.

He says it’s a big step up from the old military surplus drones he used to fly.  “The old military hovercraft ran a two-stroke motor, so it was like a chainsaw flying over your head,” he says.

Credit Mark Bauer/USGS
The fixed-wing aircraft takes a nose-dive to land

It’s not just about the noise. Those old gas motors vibrate, which shakes the cameras attached to the drone. Debenedetto’s excited about the new battery-operated drones. “These things are just really docile in the air and smooth flying, and for a photography purpose when you’re trying to get really crisp, clear images, they’re fantastic,” he says.

Credit John Vogel/USGS
The USGS hovercraft in flight

Drones can fly lower to the ground than piloted airplanes, and twist and turn in hard-to-reach places. The cameras and instruments bolted to the drones help scientists map earthquake faults; make 3D models of cliff erosion; even distinguish between native and invasive plants.

John Vogel, a USGS geographer and drone operator, says he expects drones eventually will become standard tools for research. “It just increases our capability to collect data, really,” Vogel says. “It really is a huge shift from what we’ve been dealing with in the past.”

Some things are making customized drones more affordable and attractive to scientists, like 3D printing. All the plastic parts are easily remade if they break. And later this year, the FAA is expected to simplify the rules for public institutions that fly drones for research. 

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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