Using Drones in Geography
There is no doubt that as drones are becoming more stable and safer to fly their popularity is growing. Drones have evolved from crash-prone toys to the high-spec, reliable and relatively inexpensive tools of today. Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are increasingly being used as a cost-effective way to gather geospatial data.
For schools, the use of drones for teaching and research opens up many exciting possibilities. Drones can be used to quickly survey the landscape, filming a stretch of coastline or stretch of river. They can be used to capture footage and videos of locations students might not normally be able to access. Case studies can be quite abstract for some students but seeing them for themselves, in images and footage taken by their teacher, can help them better connect with them. Drones can also be used to capture changes in vegetation and physical landscapes over time.
In dynamic natural systems, such as recurved spits, dune fields, eroding cliffs, rivers and estuaries, repeated drone missions throughout a year or over several years can provide essential information on processes and pacing and can inform future management decisions. Landforms that have been previously inaccessible such as landslips can now be surveyed from a safe location. When completing fieldwork drones can be used to complete risk assessments by evaluating potential hazards from a distance. Drones are also fun and a great way to engage young people in geography.
Drones can be used to capture images and videos of fieldwork locations prior to taking students. During the planning process, students can use the photographs and video in conjunction with OS Maps to identify potential sample locations and determine their accessibility.
Exam boards seem to be increasingly asking students to determine the direction a photograph was taken using an OS map. Using a drone can support developing practice questions to help prepare students.
Videos and images can be annotated to identify landforms and processes occurring within the scene. This is useful, particularly in physical geography. Aerial photos and videos can bring maps to life. When teaching map skills photos and videos can be used to illustrate areas on a map. Contour lines can be brought to life by illustrating the relief of an area.
Virtual field trips can be developed using images and footage from drones providing the students with the opportunity to explore a location they may not have the opportunity to visit. If students miss a field trip a virtual visit can be provided to fill their learning gap.
Exam questions can be developed using photographs taken on a drone. It allows the opportunity to create exam questions with a local focus making them more engaging and accessible, allowing practice for the real thing!
With simple editing, questions can be posed via text or narration to focus students on interpreting the video. Videos can be uploaded to Youtube for students to watch for homework. If you have an iPad we recommend using Luma Fusion for editing your videos. It is quick and easy to use and makes it easy to add annotations to your video along with an audio recording.
Drones can be used to create 3D models of landmarks and landscapes. By taking a series of photographs from different angles these can be automatically stitched together using software such as Agisoft Photoscan. The file that is output from such software can be uploaded to 3D modelling websites such as Sketchfab. The model can then be shared or embedded on a website. Below is a model of the stack at Selwicks Bay, Flamborough.
Drones can also be used to capture 4K video footage of locations and landforms. Below is a selection of videos recorded using a drone.
Additionally, drones can be used to capture photographs to help illustrate geographical landforms and processes.
Types of drone
There are many different types of drones on the market. Some are more expensive than others. The ones we think are worth investing in are:
- Leica Aibot X6 Hexacopter (for professional survey work)
- Smaller drones costing less than £100 are great for training and are available from manufacturers such as Hubsan and Syma.
The price of a drone can be restrictive to a geography department. However, this could be overcome by writing a curriculum enhancement bid if your school offers these. Alternatively, you could split the cost with another department. PE could benefit from filming lessons and matches to review performance. History could use a drone to film historic locations. Film/media could use drones to demonstrate camera shots and have students record footage. Photography departments could use a drone as part of individual projects.
Drone training and safety
You must have two IDs in place before flying most drones or model aircraft outdoors in the UK:
anyone who will fly must pass a theory test to get a flyer ID
the person or organisation that owns or is responsible for the drone or model aircraft must register for an operator ID
Most people get both a flyer ID and operator ID at the same time.
If your drone has a camera (unless it is a toy) or weighs 250g or more then you need to register with the CAA. You need to renew this registration every year. Anyone flying a drone 250g or more needs to pass a test and get a flyer ID from the CAA. If you already have a flyer ID that is still valid, you don’t need to re-do the test until it expires, although you are required to keep up to date with the new regulations.
When planning your flight, you should use a drone app, such as Drone Assist by Altitude Angel to check the air space you are planning to fly in is safe.
Drones typically have a battery life of around 20 minutes so it is worth buying a couple of spare batteries.
Be sure to check the recommended maximum wind speed for you your drone. I made the mistake of flying in high winds when I first got a drone and ended up running 1.5kms down the beach at Mappleton to recover it. Also, avoid flying when winds are gusty. A sudden strong wind can lead to disaster.
Taking out insurance on your drone comes highly recommended. Having had a few close calls, having the reassurance of insurance can take the pain out of any mishaps you have. DJI offer a protection plan if you own one of their drones.
If you are using a drone in geography I’d love to hear from you.
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I am in the process/looking into buying a drone to use in school – supporting A level coastal landscape/NEAs etc
Will I have to get a drone licence from the CAA
I will not be receiving any benefits of any sort for using the drone
Great question! As you will not be receiving commercial gain from your use of a drone you do not need a CAA license (Permission for Commercial Operations – PfCO). However, you will have to adhere to the drone code, register yourself and the drone at a cost of £9. If students are going to be flying the drone they will need to complete an online multiple-choice test (20 questions), and need to achieve 16/20. They can attempt the quiz an unlimited number of times.
If you choose not to get a PfCO, then there are greater limitations on where you can fly the drone. You are limited to flying within 150m of built-up areas etc (see Drone Code). However, with a PfCO this reduces to 50m.
Having completed the PfCO course myself, I found it incredibly useful in supporting planning flights, understanding how air space works and made me a better pilot.
In addition to registering, you should also take out insurance for your drone, in case of accidental damage to the drone and also cover to protect yourself in the unlikely event of a ‘fly away’ event e.g. losing signal and the drone crashing into something or someone.
I hope this helps! If you need any more advice please let me know!