Drones @ Smith College Let's Fly Creatively

Drones for Good?

Drones, as emerging and contested technology, are increasingly changing the way we teach, learn, and conduct research in the Spatial Analysis Lab at Smith College. We leverage the inherent tension to take advantage the affordances of the technology, and help our community build a critical understanding of potential downfalls. Our mapping missions have brought us to familiar and unfamiliar locations, yielding meaningful insights and helping us ask new questions. We encourage our affiliated students, faculty, and staff to be curious yet conscientious of the exciting prospects of drones.

Project Gallery

San Salvador, Bahamas

Rapid Assessment of Hurricane joaquin coastal impact

In early October 2015, Hurricane Joaquin reached San Salvador at Category 3 intensity, inflicting significant infrastructure damage and severing basic services for weeks. Faculty and student researchers from Smith, U. Conn., FL Gulf Coast U., and Temple headed to the Bahamas the following January to assess the extent of the impact. The group wanted to address questions such as variations in geomorphological changes, the severity of coastal erosion/deposition, and how drones can be used as a rapid response tool.

Documented structural damage along the coast. Photo credit: Deedie Steele

The team conducted aerial surveys in conjunction with ground-based surveys in nine study sites along the island perimeter. We used the DJI Phantom 3 Advanced, complemented with the DJI Go and DJI Map Pilot apps for mission planning, and derived Digital Surface Models (DSM) and orthomosaics in Pix4D.

Planned flight for Singer Bar Point.
Point cloud and mesh optimized with Ground Control Points (GCPs).

The Digital Surface Models allowed analysis of beach profiles, which suggested that San Salvador had major swash and collision impact. The high-resolution imagery also enabled feature identification such as dunes and boulders. See an example of a high-resolution orthomosaic imagery of the Gulf Coast site.

Read more about this project.

Popham beach, Maine

Recurring analysis of beach sedimentation at Popham Beach state park

Since 2016, Professor Bob Newton and his Geomorphology students have embarked on a weekend research trip every spring to document the changes happening to the local attraction. The students conduct background and field work that culminates in a final report submitted to the park manager to inform state coastal agencies such as the Maine Natural Areas Program, Maine Coastal Program, and the Maine Bureau of Parks & Lands.

Spring 2018 students at Bates College's Shortridge Field Station.

The beach survey consisted of measuring transects with high-accuracy total station in conjunction with analyzing Digital Elevation Models (DEM) derived from drone mapping. The research aims to address the resiliency and adaptability of the state park to sea-level rise.

Section lines comparing the beach profiles in 2016 versus 2018.

We used the DJI Phantom 4 Pro (automated missions) and DJI Mavic (photography & film). The flights were planned in DroneDeploy and captured data were processed in Pix4D; additional analysis were conducted in ArcGIS. View the composited flights for full coverage here.

Flight plan for Morse River at 100 m altitude, which yielded a ~2 cm resolution orthomosaic.

Read more about the project.

Saint Catherines Island, Georgia

Mapping Tortoise Burrows & Sea Turtle Tracks

photo credit: Alex Widstrand

In the spring of 2017, the Spatial Analysis Lab collaborated with the Kashmir World Foundation and the Georgia Southern University Sea Turtle Program to map tortoise burrow locations and sea turtle tracks.

Photo credit: Alex Widstrand

Watch a short film documenting the trip and learn more about our methods.

Some of our Growing Fleet

Top left to right: DJI Mavic Air "Pearsall," DJI Mavic Pro "Pie", DJI Phantom 3 Advanced "Paradise." Bottom left to right: DJI Phantom 4 Pro "Pebbles," and Tello "Putney."

Classes & Events

  • Aerial Imagery & Cinematography (IDP 109; Fall 2018, 19, and 2021 planned)
  • Aerial Imagery & Cinematography (NERCOMP Workshop; June 6-8, 2018, 19)
  • Sensing Drones (Summer Science & Engineering Program 2017 & 2018)
  • Drone Thinking / Fun with Drones (Interterm 2017 & 2018)
  • Short term Kahn - Drones: Power, Play, Policy & Pedagogy (Fall 2019)
  • Our First Drone Film Festival (2019)

Ongoing Research

  • Enhanced sensing capabilities with add-on sensors (e.g. Infrared)
  • Real-time Kinematic GPS with Emlid Reach
  • Additional sensors for environmental monitoring (Thermal and Multispectral)
  • Design #alt Drones@Smith (a design thinking curricular enhancement grant)
  • Spatial MacLeish - imagining a new course or set of workshops centered on field data collection at the MacLeish Field Station
Custom Mobius Infrared Camera mount designed and manufactured by Cindy Li, Engineering '18.

Governing Documents

Last updated: March 2021

Created By
Spatial Analysis Lab Smith College