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Looking Up: Drones, Data and Digital Studies

Matt Murphy
Matthew Murphy ’16 gets one of the college’s quadcopters up and running during a training session.

Students in Prof. Mark Sample's digital studies class took their learning to new heights as they planned and executed quadcopter, or "drone," missions on campus.

The missions were a part of Sample's "Introduction to Digital Studies" class, and brought together many of the concepts and topics discussed in class, including the role of data and databases in our culture, and the related issues of privacy, surveillance and data collection. Students also read about military drones, how they are flown, and regulatory issues related to privacy and that sort of data collection.

"I thought that flying their own drone missions would really bring all of it to life for the students," Sample said.

New Perspectives

In teams of three, students created different challenges and then had to work out flight plans to accomplish related tasks. Each group included a pilot, a camera operator and a spotter on the ground, and each team had a "target" to track (a volunteer from the class). The teams also mapped their missions on Google Maps, which gave students a taste of working with satellite imagery, Sample said.

While the Federal Aviation Administration is still working to clarify its official policies on quadcopters, the Davidson students adhered to some strict guidelines when flying their missions, Computing Support Analyst and Makerspace Manager Brian Little said, including:

  • Copters are to be flown only on Davidson College Property.
  • Copters must remain in sight at all times.
  • Copters must remain below a certain ceiling/height.
  • Copters may not be flown up to windows or used for any violation of privacy.

"Projects like these literally change perspectives on campus," Little said, and he hopes more faculty members will consider incorporating the quadcopters into their lessons. Quadcopters have some obvious applications in the sciences, Little said, particularly in the life sciences, as they can be used to gather footage in hard-to-reach outdoor locations. But, as in Sample's class, the drones have academic application beyond the purely scientific and technological, he said.

Technical Difficulties

Little purchased a DJI Phantom quadcopter for Davidson a little over a year ago, when the college was developing its makerspace Studio M. He also purchased a Parrot AR drone and six smaller, "toy" copters. Most of the students in Sample's class worked with the Phantom for their missions.

They quickly found that navigating the copter can be quite challenging, Little said, and the control panel is a bit intimidating. Two separate joysticks control the direction and speed of flight, as each propeller arm has its own circuit board. And the copters are sensitive-many factors, including gusts of wind and other weather, can significantly impact flight, adding to the challenge of navigating a mission.

Davidson's Phantom also has some upgrades, which aid in data collection but also add more elements for the pilot to control. The copter has upgraded navigation tools, a gimbal mount to hold a GoPro camera, and a video transmitter that sends a live video feed to a screen located on top of the control panel.

Theory Meets Practice

"We tend to think about drones as an abstract technology operating thousands of miles away from us," Sample said. "The goal of this assignment was to jolt students from that perspective, and I do believe it was successful."

During the project, some students expressed unease at performing a simulation of what, in other circumstances, is a grievous violation of human rights, he said. Other students countered that the drone used was so unlike military unmanned aerial vehicles that it was a different experience entirely.

Students also were surprised by the limitations of the drone, Sample said, as the weather prevented flights and caused crashes, and the battery drained quickly, limiting flight time to about 15 minutes per battery.

"These problems were exactly what I wanted," Sample said. "It's often only when technology doesn't work the way we expect that we can see it anew, from a critical perspective."

Here's a taste of the video footage captured with the on-board camera during a student quadcopter training session: