Drones Over Hunsaker During GIS Day Festivities

Drones Over Hunsaker During GIS Day Festivities

Maps, drones and spatial technology occupied Hunsaker Plaza in celebration of GIS day—an annual celebration of the instruction, research and service produced by Graphic Information Systems (GIS) hosted by the university’s four-year-old Center for Spatial Studies. The event included activities like scavenger hunts and drone demos for students and community members to participate in with the mission of spreading awareness and promoting interest in the burgeoning area of study.


Beneath the lamp posts of Hunsaker was a large poster board dotted with photographs of specific spots on campus; old black and white photos of spots where buildings like Bekins hadn’t been constructed yet; close-up images of phone booths and fire pits still standing on campus. A student volunteer handed me a map of the campus and told me that the first person to find each spot and mark it on their map wins a prize. This sort of scavenger hunt for hot spots served to encourage students to spatially engage with the campus. Some spots needed to be referenced with buildings in the background, while others were ordinary spots students pass by on a daily basis, framed at an angle most wouldn’t think to look at it from. Students gathered around the poster board debated over the exact location of certain photos.

Photo contributed by Maeve Wiencek ’22

While activities like these encouraged students to engage in the basic premises of GIS, the stars of the event were the drone demos that put the technology into students’ hands. These demos were facilitated by Steve Moore, the university’s Director of the Center for Spatial Studies, and Nate Strout, Director of Spatial Technology.


Moore explained that drones like the hand-sized, hundred dollar model students flew around the plaza were recreational models designed by DJI, a Chinese company owning most of the market in consumer-grade drones. This drone is in a classic ‘X’ shape, with four propellers on each extremity. Its propellers were protected by plastic guards so beginner pilots can learn to drive them safely; Moore shared that he uses this model to demo at local middle schools.


I had a chance to pilot the drone using a smartphone app and bluetooth to communicate wirelessly. Most students kept their distance, probably wary of the loud buzzing noise it produced and my jerky, inexperienced flight patterns. However, one little girl burst from the crowd and stood directly beneath the drone, and chased it as I flew in circles around the plaza.


Once students had a chance to test the smaller model, Strout began to set up the thirteen thousand dollar Phantom 4 Pro V2 for flight. Also a product of DJI, this model was closer to the size of a soccer ball, with a sleek white design and the same ‘X’ shape as the smaller model. It also had its own dedicated controller; a bulky box-shaped contraption with large joysticks and buttons. A smartphone was mounted to the device to display the video from the camera hanging from the bottom of the Phantom 4’s body.


Once Strout had finished setup, the propellers fired up, and for the first ten feet, the Phantom 4 slowly hovered upward, then paused for a moment before shooting up several yards above Armacost Library. When it had gained enough altitude to be safely above any building or tree in the area, students began to fly around with a full view of the entire campus projected onto the mounted smartphone.


While students took turns flying around, I looked up and noticed that the drone was no longer in sight; it was somewhere above Orton judging from the smartphone display, perhaps three hundred yards away and obscured by trees and buildings. A bit surprised, I asked Strout how far the drone was capable of flying. He explained that this model communicates via radio signal, so the distance can reach much farther than the smaller model that uses Bluetooth. He brought up an example from his time in Panama in the May term ‘Panamapping.’


“We do a lot of different GIS mapping field methods [during Panamapping],” Strout said. “We’d fly the drone all over to data capture stuff; we’d fly them about two miles away.”


If the pilot were to fly too far out of range and lose signal with the Phantom 4, or if it’s battery falls below thirty percent, it will automatically begin a return flight to the location it took off from. However, despite these safeguards in the drone’s software, there is still room for human error.


“We crashed one in Panama because we were so far away that with thirty percent battery it couldn’t get home,” Strout said. “So it started slowly going down, down, down until it ran into some trees. Luckily it reports where the last location was … so we were able to go find it.”


Students who have an interest in drone technology are encouraged to take a class in the Spatial Studies (SPA) department, where drones are often used for mapping and gathering data on the landscape using its mounted camera. Companies are increasingly interested in the uses of technology like this; GIS is used in everything from consumer GPS technology like that provided by Google, to military operations commonly facilitated by software from Esri, a company with headquarters in Redlands.


Photos contributed by the Redlands Bulldog photographer Maeve Wieneck.