Alex Navin, a senior at Carroll majoring in biochemistry with a minor in unmanned aircraft systems, slips on a virtual reality headset and maneuvers an underwater drone away from his position on a pier on North Lake. The bright yellow drone, about the size of a box of breakfast cereal, dives below the surface at his command. The submersible, equipped with bright lights and capable of capturing both video and photographs, is just one of a collection of tools Navin has learned to use, in addition to piloting a drone.
None were on his radar when he entered Carroll. “Professor Piatt reached out to a bunch of students about a project coming up last year,” recalls Navin. “He mentioned there was a lot of drones involved with it, too.” Navin, who is interested in computer science and technology in general, immediately expressed interest.
Piatt jokes that Navin’s experience playing video games has helped prepare him to operate drones. Indeed, the submersible, expertly guided by the senior, nimbly cuts through the water, chasing the occasional curious fish. In his studies for the minor, Navin has learned to operate both the submersible and a variety of unmanned aircraft systems. But the lessons have extended far beyond that, as he has learned coding, data collection and analysis via a variety of onboard sensors and even aviation law.
Navin is eyeing a career in either forensic or environmental science upon graduation, and he’s excited about the way the skills he is learning in the program can be utilized in either field. “I think the way these skills intersect with so many other areas is cool,” he said.
“I’ve gained a lot of different skills,” he recounted later. “I never envisioned doing drone research in my undergraduate studies. And when I have tried to research other schools doing this type of stuff, well, there aren’t really many. This will give me a competitive edge in my career, being able to operate these systems and being able to write code. It brings together a lot of areas in my undergraduate studies, like computer science.”
The interdisciplinary possibilities presented by this minor are both numerous and intentional, according to Mortensen, and a result of the program’s focus on drone technology to gather data. That use has exploded in recent years, as technological advances have resulted in an expanding variety of sensors that can be carried as drone payloads. Sensors carried aloft can analyze plant and water health, search for the presence of specific chemicals and record and measure plumes of sediment created by watercraft. The potential for data collection is immense – as are the varieties of information that can be collected.
For environmental science professor Piatt, the North Lake research project has been a successful collaboration and sparked his thinking. “I’m looking at all this equipment,” he said, “and thinking about how it can impact my teaching and how we can use this new technology in our chemistry labs.” Traditional biochemistry laboratories rely upon bench equipment – large and often expensive machines. “But these microsensors are the future.”
At Carroll, which has rushed headfirst into the information age, the emphasis on data collection and analysis is critical. The university has declared data literacy a crucial skill for all graduates.
Dr. Julio Rivera, the William B. Yersin professor of applied business analytics at the School of Business, points to this research project as further proof of the interdisciplinary role to be played by data analytics skills across campus. The North Lake research team has conferred with the School of Business about the use of ArcGIS, a geographic information mapping application, to help analyze and visually display the data collected. “It is now a cliché to say that we are awash in data,” said Rivera. “It streams into us from every corner.” And drones represent another important data stream.
“The business applications of drone technology are of great interest to us,” said Rivera. “ArcGIS (as well as other GIS programs) allow users to take data (from drones or other sources) that is large, messy, and in incompatible formats and transform it into understandable analysis in the form of maps, images, charts, and tables.”
TELLING THE DATA’S STORY
At North Lake, the research team has collected water samples, measured the depth and strength of underwater waves created by a variety of watercraft, visually recorded changes to the lakebed and shoreline over the course of the summer and generated a LOT of data. Three-dimensional maps were also created to allow the researchers to run simulations and collect additional data.
They also collected their fair share of curiosity. Mortensen said the group has heard from boat owners, boat manufacturers and other lake organizations, all interested in the research. He is careful to explain that this is a research project only – that it will be up to others to interpret that data and craft any policy.
For all involved, that means honestly and accurately telling the story that lives within the data. “We thought a lot about that – about data collection and analysis. Julio (Rivera) talks a lot about strategic data visualization - how do you present the data?” You need someone to tell you what the data means.
That’s how a collaborative project between the aviation science and unmanned aircraft systems and environmental science departments also involves computer science, information technology, data analytics, and even graphic design.
“We’re doing it right at Carroll,” said Mortensen. “We came in at the right time with this program. Five years ago, you didn’t have the numbers of off-the-shelf sensors you could put on the drones to do this sort of research. But it’s feasible now. Thank goodness, Charlie Byler (former arts and sciences dean) and Kevin McMahon (chair of the department of computational and physical science) and others saw that we were in the position at the right time. It’s going to grow.”