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The sky's the limit for the Carolina Drone Lab

Troy Walton_FloridaEPA.jpg

Troy Walton, lab manager for the Carolina Drone Lab, controls a drone. Photo courtesy of Peggy Mullin/Carolina Drone Lab.

When Susan Cohen came to the University in 2018 as the new associate director of the UNC Institute for the Environment, she was surprised to find no central hub for drone duties on campus.

Since then, Cohen has filled the gap with the creation of the Carolina Drone Lab, or CARDNL.

CARDNL — the first of its kind at the University — facilitates drone and sensor use for solving societal and environmental challenges, according to its website. The lab is located within the UNC Institute for the Environment.

“The idea was to have a central place where people can come together to get help or collaborate, or just fly drones together, whatever the case may be," Cohen said.

In 2019, Cohen was in a meeting with other faculty members, talking about their interest in drones. One of them was Geoffrey Bell, teaching associate professor and honors program faculty adviser for UNC’s Environment, Ecology, and Energy Program.

"And from that meeting, Cohen and I just looked at each other and thought, ‘Wow, we’re really on the same page here,'" Bell said.

The Lenovo Instructional Innovation Grant through the UNC Center for Faculty Excellence then came up, prompting Bell and Cohen to propose the creation of a drone workshop.

"The idea was we bring someone in who teaches all the rules and regulations on how to fly drones," Bell said.

Upon completing the drone workshop, eight participants — six faculty, one undergraduate and one graduate student — were ready to take the Federal Aviation Administration drone-license exam.

They didn’t know it then, but the workshop would be the catalyst for the central drone hub Cohen and Bell had envisioned all along. Cohen has since recruited an expanding group of researchers, looking into an array of environmental challenges.

“In only one year, we’ve accomplished an incredible amount of research,” said Peggy Mullin, the lab’s research technician.

Currently, CARDNL is working with the North Carolina Botanical Garden to map Mason Farm Biological Preserve in Chapel Hill, said Fleming Talton, the lab’s research associate, in a statement to The Daily Tar Heel. Fleming said the lab is working to acquire high-resolution imagery of the entire property and adjoining wetlands, about 600 acres. The data from this imaging will be brought into a broader context for wildlife corridor mapping.

“CARDNL is for students who are just getting started on research projects all the way up to multimillion dollar grant level projects that need a drone component,” Mullin said.

Joseph Sharp, a junior majoring in biomedical engineering, is one of the members of UNC’s first student-led drone club, spearheaded by Cohen this semester. The club recently joined the Collegiate Drone Racing Association, Sharp said.

Although Cohen and Sharp share a passion for drones, their usage of them is different.

“Susan’s drones are giant photography rigs," Sharp said. "Mine are literally the smallest things you can get video out of."

Once Sharp puts his headphones on and gets a hold of the controller, he said he becomes a pilot, "flying with it," while Cohen straps a sensor onto a large, fixed wing drone and flies over 200 acres of a forested environment.

Despite varying interests, the drone club and CARDNL are collaborating on a project at the Outdoor Education Center to video the new mountain bike trails.

Bell said that, probably in his lifetime, he thinks drones will develop to perform significant tasks, such as monitoring water and air quality.

“We’re barely scratching the surface of what can be done,” Bell said.

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