It has now been a few months since I met Jonathan at AGU, and I have been meaning to get active in this community since then, but I am finally getting around to it. I suppose it is better late than never. As an introduction, I'll give you guys an overview of what we're doing here at Wake Forest University.
Our UAS program is run out of the Department of Biology by myself, a master's student, and 2 faculty members. We also involve 2 undergraduate students. We acquired our first aircraft in June of 2012, a Mikrokopter Okto-XL. At the time I was an undergraduate student here at Wake. We used that aircraft for a year, collecting imagery at Duke University's experimental forest, a portion of a small island off the coast of Belize, and a few other pilot projects. I wrote my honor's thesis about methods development done with the MK and the imagery acquired during that year.
After using the MK we found ourself wanting to be freed of the limitations of the MK system, such as its arbitrary range limitation (250m from takeoff) and its closed-source firmware. We began investigating APM and acquired an APM hexacopter from 3DRobotics in early 2013. Pleased with APM, we began transitioning to all-APM aircraft. We also became interested in fixed-wing for the longer endurance it provides and acquired an APM plane this past summer.
With our APM fixed-wing we opened up a new world of possibilities. We returned to Belize this past March and mapped 2 entire islands in 2 days (~5 square km). We have also pushed the limits of our radio control systems, flying out 15 km while maintaining telemetry, RC, and video links. Other projects have included mapping Pilot Mountain, a small mountain north of our university, flying a thermal camera over a variety of trees on campus using the MK Okto to investigate differences in their temperature regimes, and returning to Duke Forest to map more of their tree plots. Finally, we flew over a ruptured coal ash storage pond in Eden, NC and used SfM techniques to estimate the volume of the spilled coal ash and toxic water (more on that here, here, and here). This mission went bigger than we ever expected, with one of our images being printed in the New York Times and an animation of our 3D model being featured on their website (both are visible in the first link above).
We now operate 2 APM fixed-wing aircraft, 1 APM hexacopter, and I am in the process of building another, larger APM hexa. This summer we will be taking all of our aircraft to Peru, our primary study site, to help investigate the basic ecology of the eastern Andes and western Amazon and the impacts of human activity on these areas. We will use visible and thermal imagery in this campaign. After Peru we will travel to Colombia to use the aircraft to census colonies of endangered seabirds on remote islands in the Pacific.
I am getting involved with the community for a simple reason; just like the rest of you we are learning as we go. We are working on a frontier, developing new methods, and learning from our mistakes. Through collaboration with this community I hope to help keep you from making some of the mistakes we have made while learning from your mistakes before we make them.
If you are curious, check out our blog for a much, much more detailed account of what we have done.
Happy to be part of the community,