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 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 it for themselves, in images and footage taken by their teacher, can help them better connect with it. 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 practise 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, allow 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.

Drone Outputs

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 select of videos recorded using a drone.

View more drone videos.

Additionally, drones can be used to capture photographs to help illustrate geographical landforms and processes.

Types of drone

There are many different types of drone on the market. Some more expensive than others. The ones we think are worth investing in are:

  • Leica Aibot X6 Hexacopter (for professional survey work)
  • DJI
  • Parrot
  • Smaller drones costing less than £100 are great for training and available from manufacturers such as Hubsan and Syma.

Price

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

Anyone can fly a drone so long as it is not for commercial purposes and not within protected airspace. If you are flying a drone you should be aware of the laws around this. You can find out more about this on the Civil Aviation website. If you are taking off from private land you must have permission from the landowner to do this. If you are planning on using drone footage and images for commercial purposes you must have a drone licence (or PfCO) from a CAA approved provider. In order to get a drone license, you’ll need to train with a National Qualified Entity (NQE). There are a number of reputable companies that provide this service.

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.

Anthony Bennett

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