Data analysis

Students take the driver’s seat in drone geospatial data analysis

Students take the driver’s seat in drone geospatial data analysis

by Elisabeth Sydor
|May 18, 2022

An exclusive resort nestled in the hills around the sleepy town of Callicoon, New York served as the backdrop for an innovative approach to field exercises by a group of Columbia College undergraduates who went there from 4 to 5 April. Led by CIESIN Senior Systems Analyst/GIS Developer Kytt MacManus and Teaching Assistant Juan Nathaniel as part of Columbia College’s one-class curriculum, “Spatial Analysis for Sustainable Development the students used drones to collect data on night lights, terrain, vegetation, and 3D modeling. The result was an ARCGIS narrative map created by the students detailing their analysis.

An aerial image captured by a DJI Mavic 2 Pro drone shows Columbia College students collecting vegetation data, for analysis using near-infrared imagery to measure the health of plants on the surface. The data served as the basis for a standardized difference vegetation index developed by the students. Callicoon, New York, April 2022.

The use of drones has been a major advancement since MacManus’ field trip four years ago to the Black Rock Forest Consortium in Cornwall, New York, where students collected primary geospatial data using units global positioning systems (GPS), ArcGIS Collector (a mobile app), and cell phones, and took aerial photos using balloons and kites.

MacManus has long been intrigued by the vast potential applications of drones in research. He is particularly sensitive to the way drones “democratize” access to data in new ways, reducing the cost and complexity of data acquisition. “By using drones, developing countries, startups and small organizations can make very big changes in the way they collect data,” he says. “Data collection becomes accessible to individuals. You can take high frequency measurements every day unlike when you hire a company and you may have to wait months or even years for your data.

Left to right: Columbia College students Ethan Rankin, Yumtsokyi Bhum, Lauren Kahme, Michael Higgins, Alex Contreras, Emme Fraser, Grace Tulinsky, Madeline Liberman, Camila Green, Charlotte Burger, Owen Fitzgerald-Diaz;  assistant speaker Kytt MacManus;  and teaching assistant Juan Nathaniel.  Callicoon, New York, April 2022.

Left to right: Columbia College students Ethan Rankin, Yumtsokyi Bhum, Lauren Kahme, Michael Higgins, Alex Contreras, Emme Fraser, Grace Tulinsky, Madeline Liberman, Camila Green, Charlotte Burger and Owen Fitzgerald-Diaz; assistant speaker Kytt MacManus; and teaching assistant Juan Nathaniel. Callicoon, New York, April 2022.

MacManus is excited to position its students to use this new technology to expand their career and research options. Her plans include a collaborative project proposal with other social scientists to support communities in data acquisition and literacy.

The fieldwork was made possible by a grant from the Provost Emerging Technology Grant 2021 for the “Drones and AR/VR for 3D Modeling in GIS” proposal, which supported the purchase of the equipment. Funding from the Climate School’s Earth Institute Course Support Program covered travel and accommodation costs.