Professors in Villanova University’s Department of Geography and the Environment (GEV) had heard from students about their desire to get more experience with drones. The faculty also recognized that employers were interested in hiring students that had this background.
For a few years, GEV has taught a drone lecture as part of a Geo-Techniques course, led by associate professor Frank Galgano, PhD. Students are able to map out a flight plan over Mendel Field, fly the drone while taking photos through their path and then process the images in the geographic information system (GIS) lab. But that’s it.
So, Stephen Strader, PhD, assistant professor of GEV, and Michele Gandy, GIS lab manager, designed a one-credit course dedicated to drones that covers their history, how to fly them, image processing and a high-level overview of things students should know before taking the exam to receive their unmanned aircraft system (UAS) license—a requirement to fly a drone commercially or on Villanova’s campus.
The course was offered for the first time this fall and took place over three consecutive Saturday mornings. The first two weeks the class was in the GIS lab on campus and the final week went outdoors. The class traveled to Willow Creek Farm Preserve in Collegeville to fly the drones. Although the students weren’t licensed to fly the devices, Gandy and Strader are, and students were able to fly them under their supervision. At Willow Creek, they flew over blueberry patches to identity at what stage of health the crops were at.
“In visible light, you can tell the difference between a green, healthy crop and a brown crop that’s fighting for life,” Gandy said. “But what the drones helped us do is really help differentiate between super healthy vegetation and ones that are starting to struggle a little bit. It might look green to us, but with the different cameras we have on the drones, like near-infrared, we’re able to see what’s really going on.”