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Sky’s the limit as ACC students soar with new tech

Sky’s the limit as ACC students soar with new tech

Written On: 27 October, 2015

It’s not a bird, and it’s not a plane, but it is able to leap tall buildings … under the careful control of an operator on the ground. New technology is lifting off this fall at Assiniboine Community College, with instructors excited about the opportunities that remote-operated aircraft can bring to their students.

Known popularly as drones, but more accurately as unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs, the flying machines are starting to shake up industries from real estate to tourism to agriculture, and ACC students are going to be among the first in the country trained on them.

“It’s a tool that’s being used in a lot of different industries, but there’s not a lot of training,” says Steven Hills, a GIS instructor at ACC. “If our students can get this kind of hands-on experience during their studies, it will give them a real nice tool in their tool belt.”

His department took delivery of two new UAVs over the summer and completed their own training before classes started. Students will be learning to fly a brand-new DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter (meaning it has four helicopter-like rotors, one at each corner), but Hills is even more proud of the DJI S1000. 

The S1000 is a beast. Unlike the friendly white plastic of the toaster-sized Phantom, which is popular among hobbyists, the S1000 is jet black carbon fibre. It’s got a wingspan of about five feet, with eight separate rotors providing enough lift for its battery packs and a full-size professional camera.

Different lenses and filters for that camera mean the S1000 will be very well-suited to research and gathering data for students to analyze on the ground.

Near-infrared filters can be used to measure how well crops are growing, and to pick out plants suffering from insect stress or drought — of obvious interest in agriculture. Low-distortion lenses can point straight down at the ground and capture near-real time images that students can stitch together seamlessly using special computer programs. Imagine an ultra-high-resolution Google Maps of your own farm, updated that very morning.

“It’s quick,” says Pam Wilson, also a GIS instructor at ACC. “Farmers can get data almost instantly. And we can be out there every week.” 

That’s in stark contrast to relying on satellite images, which might pass over only a few times a season, and can’t see through cloudy skies.

To users of GIS, or Geographic Information Systems, that kind of timely and accurate information is critical.

Flying over a field instead of walking through can also help keep soil diseases like clubroot contained, she points out.

Not only are there immediate practical benefits on the ground, but there’s one big benefit in the classroom, too.

“They’re fun!” Wilson exclaims. “Students want to learn!”

Of course, there’s more than fun to it.

Attachments to the UAVs can expand its capabilities well beyond aerial photography, Hill says.

“You can get colour infrared, near infrared, thermal … devices to capture air quality, temperature moisture … you could create a 3D cylinder of pollutants coming out of a smokestack,” he says. “I even know of a fellow who used one to capture cell phone signal strength, and measure its decay as you got further away from the tower.”

Students who graduate with flight time on a UAV will have a leg up on their peers, he says.

“For a good pilot, you can get hired to do heritage mapping of buildings, examine drilling rigs or smokestacks, anything that might require an assessment where you might not want to go up a ladder,” he says. “A lot of organizations are using these for real estate, to show the ‘viewshed’ of an unbuilt condo tower, ‘Here’s what your view from the 21st floor will be.’' 

Hills says that students will be learning with the UAVs through the fall and again in the spring, although cold weather will likely keep them grounded through the winter. Not only do -40 temperatures reduce battery life and flying time, no one wants to trudge through hip-deep snow to pick up their UAV from a field. 

But there will be plenty of data for classes the chew through during the winter. He expects that most students in the college’s GIS programs will get a taste of flying the Phantom, as will most of those in the Land and Water Management program.

“Then maybe we’ll have them go and demo it to a larger group, say Agribusiness,” Hills suggests. “And then they’ll use that data in yet another class. 

Meanwhile, students in the Interactive Media Arts program are awaiting delivery of a drone of their own.

“We have a Phantom 3 on order and we’ll be using it this year in our production classes,” says Graham Street, an Interactive Media Arts instructor at ACC.

That UAV, an upgraded version of the Phantom 2 used by GIS, features an ultra-high-definition 4K camera that Street says will be perfect for students who are interested in a unique new angle on video.

“Drones let us capture high production value footage for a very low cost and we want to make sure that our students are familiar with this technology,” he says, adding that he expects UAVs to be even more widespread in the near future.

“I've been using one all summer and I'm looking forward to showing the students what shots are possible,” he says. “They add a lot of production value and are incredibly fun to use. They’re without a doubt an exceptional learning experience for our students.”

Part of the learning includes teaching students the rules and regulations for safe and legal operation of the UAVs — including pre-flight checks and maintenance.

The S1000 is “big enough that you could hurt someone,” Wilson says. And when fully charged, the battery packs are so filled to the brim with electricity that if they’re dropped on a hard surface they could catch fire.

So how do you handle something so explosively powerful? Wrap an ACC Cougars rubber wristband around it, of course. Wilson says the bright red wristbands help them keep track of which batteries are charged up and ready to go, and which are drained.

It’s also a reminder that while the UAVs can be entertaining to play with, they’re also serious tools.

“We want them to realize that there’s really cool technology out there,” Wilson says. “You buy something and people think it’s a toy, but there’s actual usage. Yes, it’s fun, but it has a purpose.”

In fact, with UAV technology still in its infancy, the future is wide-open for new uses.

“Every time I go on YouTube, people come up with new things,” she says.

This year, some of those cool new things might be thanks to ACC students.

By Grant Hamilton