Drone propels environmental program to greater heights

Palm Beach State College has a new drone to give Environmental Science Technology students a close-up view of how the industry uses the popular technology for Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping.

Dustin J. Myers of CSA Ocean Sciences (center) test out the drone with Rick Householder and Dr. Jessica Miles.

Dr. Jessica Miles, a professor and Environmental Science department chair, and Rick Householder, an adjunct instructor of the required GIS mapping course, are obtaining certification from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly the unmanned aircraft. Using hand-held navigation equipment, they will capture images and data from wetlands and other areas and use the information in their classes.

“We’re trying to prepare our students for what they might see in the workforce,’’ Miles said. “Many agencies and businesses will be implementing the use of drones in a greater capacity because they can reduce field time, increasing cost efficiency aspects, and reduce safety concerns for workers in the field.”

Householder, who uses higher-end drones in his role as Geospatial Section leader for the South Florida Water Management District, encouraged the College to secure its own industry standard version– a Phantom 4Pro.  Its features include a 5.5-inch, 1080 pixel touch screen display, a 20-megapixel camera and 60 frames-per-second video recording with up to 4K resolution.

“I felt the industry was heading in such a way that our students could really benefit from use of a drone,” Householder said. “The students will help us prepare, set up and conduct a mission and also analyze the acquired data and imagery. This is a very fast-growth technology. It’s a new tool in the GIS toolbox that will help the students excel in the industry.”

He said that with the drone they can zoom in on areas to determine habitat impact, delineate wetlands, monitor coral and seagrass habitats, as well as help python hunters locate invasive snakes in the Everglades for removal. “All of these projects will have student involvement,’’ he said.

In the past, students relied largely on Google Earth images, which may be more outdated. “If we wanted to look at a wetland now, we can send a drone up and have an image immediately, but an image from Google Earth could be out of date by two years or more. This gives timely snapshots of the actual habitat.”

“Florida’s vegetation is very dense and wetlands abound, so the use of drones allows us to get into and explore places that we wouldn’t traditionally be able to get into on foot. Now we can view the site effectively from a safer distance,’’ added Miles, who has led the Environmental Science program for 15 years.

Scott MacLachlan, dean of student services and interim provost of the Palm Beach Gardens campus, said he is pleased that the drone technology is now available for students in the program. “It’s the cutting edge of technology within the GIS mapping profession. It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. We’re one of the few schools that is as far as along as we are in that kind of program.”


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