Catawba College drone program takes off – Salisbury Post
SALISBURY — Despite headwinds from the global COVID-19 pandemic, Catawba College’s drone program began in 2020. Now, two years later, the program has taken off. Three Catawba students are pushing the boundaries of what can be done with small unmanned aerial vehicles.
Carolyn Kasper, a senior graduate who is also interning at Rowan County’s Geographic Information Systems Division, is the first student in the program to earn a UAV pilot’s license from the Federal Aviation Administration.
Kasper has worked with the Conservation Fund, a national non-profit organization that assists in land conservation efforts. The Conservation Fund can operate as a land trust, similar to the Three Rivers Land Trust in downtown Salisbury, using conservation easements to protect land with willing owners. However, the fund always cedes the land to other entities, often government partners, to maintain the land over the long term.
In the short term, the fund monitors the property while owning it, usually on foot. The big question is, can drones monitor the bondage faster and more efficiently than other traditional methods?
“For some properties, given the right size and environmental conditions at the site, drone monitoring is easy, accurate and probably saves time. But that’s certainly not true for all sites,” Kasper said.
Kate Halstead is pursuing a major in Environment and Sustainability with a concentration in Natural Resource Management and a minor in GIS. She hopes to continue to merge the latest technologies with natural resource management activities.
During the past academic year, Halstead worked on a project that focused on the potential of using drones to monitor tree health in Catawba College’s Fred Stanback Jr. Ecological Reserve. “Ash trees (genus Fraxinus) across the region and country are dying from the invasive emerald ash borer,” Halstead said. “The magnitude of their impact is evident when crossing the I-85 Yadkin River Bridge. On either side of the river, you see dozens, if not hundreds, of dead ash trees.
Halstead uses a fixed-wing drone to fly in a model lawnmower over the Catawba Preserve, snapping photos every few seconds. The goal is to stitch the images together to create an ultra-high resolution orthomosaic (one large coherent image) of the reserve. When scanning the image, Halstead can then count standing dead trees, called snags. It is important for a land manager to be able to quickly and accurately tell how many trees are alive or dead. This drone-based method for counting standing dead trees may be able to offer a reduction in cost and time compared to the usual terrestrial survey. His work was recently presented at the annual conference of the Association for Southeastern Biologists in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Jose Martinez is a graduate in information systems with a minor in business administration. He sees a lot of overlap between information systems, businesses and drones. “Last semester, I competed in the Drone Shark Tank competition at Catawba, modeled after the hit entrepreneurial TV show Shark Tank,” Martinez said. “It was really fun and I was impressed with all the potential and creative commercial uses of drones the students came up with.”
This semester, Martinez is using drones to explore the reality capture process, which focuses on the real-life built environment and the creation of digital twins. Martinez uses the college’s DJI Phantom 4 quadcopter to create digital twins of various buildings on campus.
“This space is exploding right now,” said Andrew Jacobson, minor geographic information systems and technology coordinator.
The world’s largest GIS software company, ESRI, is investing heavily in 3D and the creation of digital twins for industrial and commercial purposes, he said. Additionally, Unity, one of the world’s largest game engine developers, is integrating reality capture into its platform in an effort to encourage drone photography to recreate real, physical spaces in the digital environment for gaming purposes, training simulations and more.
Martinez agrees: “Drones are very versatile. We can theoretically make a 3D model of any structure and visualize it in virtual reality or augmented reality. Imagine playing “Grand Theft Auto”, “Zelda” or some other video game, and instead of playing it in a virtual universe, you could be playing it right here on the streets of Salisbury.