Taking Research to New Heights

From surveying glacial melt to managing wildfires, there are endless ways drones can be used in research. Over winter break, UNC faculty and students completed a drone workshop ­— the first of its kind at the university — developing aeronautic expertise to apply to their research.

February 11th, 2020

“Alright, who’s up?” asks drone instructor Jimmy Burch

The group of UNC faculty are quiet. Some divert their eyes, shifting their posture — avoidance behavior they have surely all seen before in their own classrooms.

“I’ll do it,” says Jennifer Larson. The UNC English professor steps forward.

Burch gives a quick tutorial on controls — the left joystick is up and down, turn left and right. The right joystick controls forward and back, tilt left and right. Most importantly, if a problem occurs they can let go of the controls and the drone will hover in one spot.

The drone’s propellers kick on and the small aircraft pops up into the air. At first, Larson is cautious, slowly flying the drone above traffic cones set up in the grassy field. Within minutes though, a wide grin spreads across her face as she gains confidence executing the maneuvers Burch calls out.

Larson is one of eight participants in the first drone workshop hosted by UNC — the product of a collaboration between teaching associate professor Geoffrey Bell and Susan Cohen, associate director of the Institute for the Environment. The workshop was made possible with funding from the Lenovo Instructional Innovation Grant through the UNC Center for Faculty Excellence.

The course explores drone safety, flying techniques, and use in research. By the end of the week, students are ready for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) drone-license exam and, after certification, a fleet of drones will be available at UNC for participants to check out and use in their future research projects.

The participants — six faculty, one graduate student, and one undergrad — come from a range of disciplines like marine sciences, geography, international education, and anthropology. Bell guarantees everyone involved will discover how to incorporate drones into their work.

“I think most people think of drones’ capabilities mainly for the delivery of packages or military uses,” he says, “but there’s a really, really exciting field of how drones are being used for scientific purposes.”

Scientists use this technology to track animal migrations and conservation efforts, create 3D topographical maps of archeological sites, identify methane leaks in oil and gas production, monitor coastal erosion and coral bleaching, and predict lava flow. One group, Ocean Alliance, is even using drones to collect biological samples from whales’ blowholes, analyzing the DNA to study the animals’ microbiome.

Even in the realm of video, drones can capture the imagination, giving a unique view of the world most will never get to see.

For Cohen, the possibilities are endless.

“It sounds hokey, but the sky really is the limit,” she laughs.

While hobbyists can fly drones without certification, to use them for commercial purposes like research requires a license. A plethora of tutorials are available online but workshop students benefit from one-on-one instruction from Attollo, a private company dedicated to teaching the complexities of flying unmanned aircrafts.

“We have the perk of having experienced drone operators to ask questions and get feedback from,” Cohen says. “You could take the FAA test without ever flying a drone, but we want to make sure folks have practical experience.”

Cohen and Bell hope this workshop will be the first of many and are working to establish a drone center at UNC.

“There is a drone movement at universities and it’s time, I think, for UNC to have a centralized effort,” Cohen says. “It’s a super dynamic field that’s changing all the time and there needs to be a place to come and work with other people interested in drones.”

For the participants of the 2019 workshop, the course was a first step into a new realm of research possibilities.


Jimmy Burch is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps and instructor for Attollo UAS.

Jennifer Larson is a teaching associate professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature and director of Undergraduate Studies within the UNC College of Arts & Sciences.

Geoffrey Bell is a teaching associate professor and honors program faculty advisor for the Environment, Ecology, and Energy Program within the UNC College of Arts & Sciences.

Susan Cohen is the associate director of the Institute for the Environment.

Karl Castillo is associate professor in the Department of Marine Sciences and Environment, Ecology, and Energy Program within the UNC College of Arts & Sciences.

John Thompson is a UNC junior majoring in environmental studies.