Acquisition of Fixed-Wing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles for Training the Next Generation of Scientists
At all times, Earth's surface is in some state of being covered, denuded, shifted, and/or altered. Some of these processes, such as the movement of tectonic plates, are driven by large scale physical forcings, and can only be observed passively. Other fluctuations, including rising sea levels, desertification, and deforestation, are actively affected by human behavior. All of these changes have the potential to drastically alter the way(s) of life for the biological inhabitants of Earth. By reconstructing the past---and predicting the future---of the evolution of the planet's surface, we can better understand what impacts processes like mining, clear cutting, and a wide variety of other environmental and societal phenomena will have, and how we may avoid and/or mitigate undesired consequences of change.
One powerful observational methodology is remote sensing, which includes the vast amounts of data collected by an increasingly large number of space- or air-borne sensors. These data, when processed, can be (and have been) used to quantify a wide range of physical processes, including the waxing and waning of ice sheets, vegetation growth or loss, and even the creation of brand new landscapes. For those interested in studying how the surface of Earth has changed, is changing, and will change in the future, the viability of remotely sensed data means that a solid understanding of how to acquire, process, and analyze such information is necessary. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or ``drones"), which are relatively inexpensive and easily operated by small teams, are ideal tools to teach students these required skills.
This funding will enable the acquisition of two fixed-wing UAVs to both help train the next generation of field scientists as well as elevate remote sensing-based research at Dartmouth. The UAVs will be incorporated into ongoing projects---such as the mapping of two billion year old microbial buildups to better understand the co-evolution of life and environment on Earth---and become a central part of a remote sensing course in EARS. Additionally, owing to the ease of use of fixed-wing drones, we anticipate that faculty and students in Anthropology, Geography, Biological Sciences, and Environmental Studies), among others, will take advantage of the equipment for their own research goals.