Monday, April 21, 2014

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Not That Kind of Drone: Environmental Sciences Professor Uses Small Copter for Weather Research, Teaching

On a recent morning, University of Virginia professor Stephan de Wekker watched a small, remote-controlled hexacopter lift off the ground at a farm near the Blue Ridge Mountains. 

Doug Chestnut, a Web programmer in the University Library, used the controls to pilot the copter, which has six rotors and equipment for measuring weather conditions, toward a pair of 30-foot poles standing nearby.

De Wekker, an associate professor in the College of Arts & Sciences’ Department of Environmental Sciences, studies the boundary layer of the atmosphere – the few hundred to thousand meters closest to the ground – and said the hexacopter is a promising new tool for research and teaching.

“It will measure humidity and temperature, and possibly one day wind speed and direction,” De Wekker said. “Currently, we usually have to take these measurements with a helium balloon, and conditions can be difficult. The copter is a way to take such measurements more continuously and easily.”

Their work is a collaboration between a researcher and the library that came about in part through serendipity. Chestnut happened to be nearby when de Wekker was talking with staff in the Scholars’ Lab about their work using do-it-yourself aerial photography tools.

The two began talking about Arduino microcontrollers – small, cheap, open-source computer boards that are highly customizable – and realized that adding sensors and a microcontroller to the library’s hexacopter might be an effective way to gather atmospheric data.

The two began testing the equipment at Innisfree Village in western Albemarle County. De Wekker recently offered several students an internship for the copter project and has plans to use the technology as a teaching tool.

“I think this is a very good way to show students how we can do atmospheric research in a very creative way,” he said.

Stephanie Phelps, a graduate student in environmental sciences, is helping de Wekker with his research. Instruments on towers in the field measure wind speed- and direction and other conditions at 10 meters above the ground, and the hexacopter has the potential to take similar measurements from 30 meters or more.

“It gives me experience in different things, like electronics and taking measurements in the atmosphere, so I think I’m benefitting a lot not only from getting those measurements, but from the method of getting those measurements,” Phelps said.

Temple Lee, a doctoral candidate and de Wekker’s teaching assistant, said they plan to use the hexacopter in a  course on boundary layer meteorology. “The hexacopter gives students exposure to the type of work we do as environmental scientists,” he said.

Having environmental scientists on site conducting research is right in line with Innisfree Village’s mission, said Peter Traverse, the farm manager at the village, which includes a 550-acre farm and a residential community for adults with intellectual disabilities.

Using open-source hardware and software helps keep costs down and gives researchers access to tools that otherwise could be expensive or hard to configure, Chestnut said. Helping scholars access those resources is increasingly a part of the library’s mission, he said.

“I think it’s a good role for the library to have. It’s certainly been popular in the Scholars’ Lab in terms of geospatial technology,” he said. “I think if people in the library have knowledge or experience with this stuff, it’s best to share it. What better place than the library?”

For de Wekker, the copter may be only the beginning of research enabled by similar technology. He’s also considering adding a network of sensors to the fence posts at the Innisfree Village farm to measure weather conditions. Those sensors could transmit data wirelessly to the farmhouse, where it could be uploaded to a Web-based server, he said.

“The possibilities are really exciting,” he said.

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