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Drones: Geography from a Different Perspective

Thermal imaging of the UNI-Dome area by a drone.If you see a drone overhead while walking on the University of Northern Iowa campus, there is a good chance that it is one of the Geography Department’s.  Dr. James Dietrich joined the faculty of UNI last summer to continue his research with drones.  Dietrich stated that, “Dr. Pease, was on the forefront” of implementing this technology into the Geography curriculum when he posted the position.  “I’m very excited to be a part of this department and university,” he continued while standing in the Geography Department’s Drone Lab.   

Birds-eye view of UNI Campus by a Geography Department drone.With drones, Dietrich is able to blend his love of technology with the beauty of being outside in nature.  Technology has allowed geography researchers to look at landscapes through the medium of photography.  Dr. Dietrich and other researchers are able to use historical aerial and ground photographs and compare them to recent drone photographs noting the changes that have taken place.

Having grown up in Colorado, Dietrich was encouraged and pushed by his parents and his professors to go out and try different things and to find his passion.  He has since traveled the United States for his education.  The University of Kansas, Texas State University, University of Oregon, and a post-doc at Dartmouth College have all been a part of Dr. Dietrich’s path toward his position as professor at UNI.Dietrich prepares a small drone for flight on UNI Campus.

UNI’s Geography department has a long standing history of strength in graphical information systems (GIS).  It has a reputation for being on the forefront of computer-based mapping, remote sensing, and satellite imagery. 

Dr. Dietrich is looking forward to working on landscape, terrain, and ecosystem restoration projects.  Interacting with the UNI students has been great.  Colleagues in the department and across campus have been wonderful in supporting Dr. Dietrich in his first year on campus.

As a doctoral student, Dr. Dietrich worked with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs to do a long term physical monitoring of a salmon spawn habitat restoration of the Middle Fork of the John Day River.  It was a challenging project. The river had been altered for a mining operation and in later years over grazed by cattle.     Cattle destroy the banks of the river and change the landscape. The changes destroy habitat, increase water temperature, and affect the fish and other life in the river.  The restoration process included removing the cattle, rebuilding the banks, and planting vegetation to help maintain and increase the available habitat. 

The goal was to utilize pre-mining photos to design and complete a restoration project to bring the land as close as possible to the original landscape.  Once completed, the salmon will now have the proper conditions to swim upriver and spawn.  Dr. Dietrich’s contribution was to determine what the area originally looked like using photographs from the 1800’s and historic maps.   One photo from about 1930 showed how the mining operation had altered the landscape, destroying much of the valley river system. 

Teaching and working with students to help them understand drone technology.Next the team determined what a healthy and productive river should look like by finding a snapshot of the river in an area that was unaltered.  The objective was to mirror this healthy part of the river in the damaged portions.  As a geomorphologist, Dr. Dietrich’s task was to look at the physical parts of the river: banks, sandbars, and bed material.  Through this, he could get a sense of how the river has changed. These changes include its shape, composition, and overall structure of the river. 

River restorations can be small (a couple hundred yards) to large (a couple miles in length).  The size of a restoration adds to the challenge. This restoration would be considered a large project.  The outcome of the restoration thus far has been a success.

As a professor with a drone pilot’s license, Dr. Dietrich has six drones he utilizes for teaching and research.  Each drone has different characteristics so that different tasks can be completed.  One drone is a fixed wing, much like a traditional airplane, flying straight and level over large areas for big aerial mapping.  The fixed wing has limited maneuverability but can fly for about 30 minutes and cover a large area.  The other five drones are rotorcraft with multiple rotors.  These are great for tight spaces such as within trees and along shorelines. However they can only fly for about 20 minutes before needing to recharge. Dr. Dietrich with his largest rotocraft drone.

The drones have onboard cameras that can level themselves and compensate for movement so that the photos and videos are cleaner and stable.  The largest drone can lift up to 32 pounds.  This is necessary so that it can fly while carrying a large digital SLR camera for super high resolution photos.  It can also carry cameras that can take digital true color, thermal (or infra-red), and multi-spectral digital images, measuring both visible and invisible light at many wavelengths.  Because of its size, all of these cameras can be mounted on the drone at the same time.

Since coming to campus, Dr. Dietrich has worked on projects at the Washburn Prairie, a river restoration near Manchester, and mapping campus.  The campus mapping will allow future students to tour campus virtually.  His research will focus on how to improve accuracy of the maps created from drone footage.  The Geography Department and Dr. Dietrich can work with state and local agencies to complete mapping projects.  For example, flat maps can be made into three dimensional elevation maps.

Check out this drone video!


Ginger L'Heureux, UNI STEM Graduate Assistant

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