Taking Flight with GIS


Thomas Nelson Community College students Shari Davies, Tim Minich, Josh Darnall, David Nicks and Laura Nusz were among 13 students from five Virginia community colleges who can now add unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and NASA to their resumes thanks to their work on a sea level rise study for NASA Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. The students completed four-days of fieldwork at NASA Wallops, planning and conducting UAS missions, analyzing data and preparing reports for NASA. The fieldwork was part of a pilot online course, Topics in Service Learning in Geographic Information Systems (GIS), offered by Thomas Nelson, in partnership with the Virginia Space Grant Consortium (VSGC) as part of the VSGC’s NASA-funded STEM Takes Flight at Virginia’s Community Colleges project.

Students were guided by faculty mentors Cherie Aukland and David Webb as they developed knowledge and skills in GIS, remote sensing, UAS, and sea level rise. e goal was to demonstrate the capability of small UAS to collect imagery and other data about phragmites, an invasive species, as well as shoreline data to help Wallops assess the impact of sea level rise on the facility. The data and technical report will support NASA Wallops’ Coastal Resilience Initiative, and goals for future similar use of UAS.

During the project, a DJI Phantom 3 quad-copter flew an autonomous flight over 52 acres on the north end of the island. is mission collected 211 highly-definition true-color images to create a high-resolution map of the area. A manual flight using a DJI Phantom 2 quad-copter equipped with a payload of a Raspberry Pi-controlled near-infrared camera was own over a smaller area on the south end of the island. Aukland, a Thomas Nelson professor, said that the drone took only eight minutes to collect the imagery.

Following the Wallops Island project, Virginia educators received a $900,000 National Science Foundation grant to help teachers start drone- flying classes at community colleges. e grant is part of an effort to prepare would-be workers for an exploding industry that is making inexpensive, high-resolution imagery widely available. In a July 2016 article on the grant by the Washington Post, Aukland discussed how UAS will change how we analyze our world.

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