Drones Over Potrillo: Seeing Planet Science from a New Angle

Drones Over Potrillo: Seeing Planet Science from a New Angle

                                                                            Jose Hurtado’s drone flies over Kilbourne Hole. (Photo: Katherine Wright)

By Briana Lionetti

Stephen Scheidt launched his fixed-wing drone, which looked like a miniature airplane, over the lava flows at Aden Crater and the crevices of Kilbourne Hole—a flying camera that rose just a few hundred feet to help piece together clues to what happened below 24,000 years ago.

Over the past decade, drones have been used for everything from killing terrorists to making nature photography. They’re also giving scientists who study the natural world new angles for their explorations. In early June, Scheidt, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona, used one of these Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAVs)—to deploy the technical term–to map an area of southern New Mexico known as the Potrillo volcanic field. The technology allowed Scheidt and his team to take enough pictures from above to construct a three-dimensional map of the area’s topography using a technique called stereophotogrammetry.

​“UAVs are the missing link between what we see on the ground versus what we see from the satellites,” said Scheidt, whose drone can fly a little bit below 400 feet and capture the topography down to a centimeter.

Stephen Scheidt (in blue shirt) prepares to launch his drone in Kilbourne Hole. He’s assisted by Ben Feist, a web data specialist invited to join the RIS4E team’s field work. (Photo: Kevin Lizarazo) CLICK TO ENLARGE

Scheidt’s drone, a $20,000 device made by a company called Trimble, is far more sophisticated than the low-end variety anyone can buy at an electronics store or online for under $1,000. Besides the drone itself, scientists need to use a GPS system that can cost as much as $100,000 per research institution. ​“These UVA data are rare, and standard methods for analysis are even less common,” Scheidt said.

Scheidt flew his drone six times during the RIS4E field work. Five of the flights went perfectly. The data from the sixth flight had downloading errors that Scheidt would have to work on. “I have all the images, but it will take some creative data processing to correct the errors,” he said.

​The RIS4E field work in New Mexico was a new opportunity for Scheidt. Because federal law bars drones from national parks (even drones operated by scientists with federal funding), Scheidt had to fly a kite with a camera attached during the RIS4E team’s research trip to Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park in 2015. Potrillo is federal land, but not a national park, so he only needed permission from the Bureau of Land Management—and the Federal Aviation Administration. ​ Federal law requires operators of science-quality drones to have the equivalent of a pilot’s learner’s permit. “I wouldn’t know how to fly a plane,” Scheidt said with a laugh.

UTEP professor Jose Hurtado and his students prepare the drone for take-off at Kilbourne Hole. (Photo: Briana Lionetti)

While Scheidt was using his expensive fixed-wing drone, Jose Hurtado, a member of the RIS4E team from the nearby University of Texas at El Paso, was using his quadcopter drone, the store-bought kind, to add to the information gathered about lava tubes, erosion, topographical mapping and even precise volcano eruptions. “It’s like putting together a puzzle piece,” said Hurtado.

​Hurtado and some of his students used drones to map the topography of Kilbourne Hole in advance of the RIS4E team’s arrival for their mock moon walks. To pick the best spots for these trial runs, Hurtado needed to identify places to be avoided: lava tubes or skylights, which are the openings of the lava tubes, that could be hazardous to the researchers. In a desert like Potrillo it can be difficult to determine elevation and the degrees of slopes. But with drone technology the scientists could evaluate where it was safe to step and where it wasn’t – down to the centimeter.

Drones could also be one of the tools that astronauts use on the surfaces of other planetary bodies. Excursions like the RIS4E field work allow scientists to practice with geological instruments and maybe one day compare their photos on Earth to images astronauts take on places like Mars.

“People may one day look at pictures on Mars and say, ‘Oh, I’ve touched this before,’” Scheidt said. ​

​“I hope to use this technology on other planets,” said Hurtado, one of several scientists on the trip who has applied to be an astronaut and still hopes to make it one day.

View a short clip of Jose Hurtado’s drone in action.

View a short clip of Stephen Scheidt’s drone launch.

                                                                            Jose Hurtado’s drone flies over Kilbourne Hole. (Photo: Katherine Wright)

By Briana Lionetti

Stephen Scheidt launched his fixed-wing drone, which looked like a miniature airplane, over the lava flows at Aden Crater and the crevices of Kilbourne Hole—a flying camera that rose just a few hundred feet to help piece together clues to what happened below 24,000 years ago.

Over the past decade, drones have been used for everything from killing terrorists to making nature photography. They’re also giving scientists who study the natural world new angles for their explorations. In early June, Scheidt, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona, used one of these Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAVs)—to deploy the technical term–to map an area of southern New Mexico known as the Potrillo volcanic field. The technology allowed Scheidt and his team to take enough pictures from above to construct a three-dimensional map of the area’s topography using a technique called stereophotogrammetry.

​“UAVs are the missing link between what we see on the ground versus what we see from the satellites,” said Scheidt, whose drone can fly a little bit below 400 feet and capture the topography down to a centimeter.

Stephen Scheidt (in blue shirt) prepares to launch his drone in Kilbourne Hole. He’s assisted by Ben Feist, a web data specialist invited to join the RIS4E team’s field work. (Photo: Kevin Lizarazo) CLICK TO ENLARGE

Scheidt’s drone, a $20,000 device made by a company called Trimble, is far more sophisticated than the low-end variety anyone can buy at an electronics store or online for under $1,000. Besides the drone itself, scientists need to use a GPS system that can cost as much as $100,000 per research institution. ​“These UVA data are rare, and standard methods for analysis are even less common,” Scheidt said.

Scheidt flew his drone six times during the RIS4E field work. Five of the flights went perfectly. The data from the sixth flight had downloading errors that Scheidt would have to work on. “I have all the images, but it will take some creative data processing to correct the errors,” he said.

​The RIS4E field work in New Mexico was a new opportunity for Scheidt. Because federal law bars drones from national parks (even drones operated by scientists with federal funding), Scheidt had to fly a kite with a camera attached during the RIS4E team’s research trip to Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park in 2015. Potrillo is federal land, but not a national park, so he only needed permission from the Bureau of Land Management—and the Federal Aviation Administration. ​ Federal law requires operators of science-quality drones to have the equivalent of a pilot’s learner’s permit. “I wouldn’t know how to fly a plane,” Scheidt said with a laugh.

UTEP professor Jose Hurtado and his students prepare the drone for take-off at Kilbourne Hole. (Photo: Briana Lionetti)

While Scheidt was using his expensive fixed-wing drone, Jose Hurtado, a member of the RIS4E team from the nearby University of Texas at El Paso, was using his quadcopter drone, the store-bought kind, to add to the information gathered about lava tubes, erosion, topographical mapping and even precise volcano eruptions. “It’s like putting together a puzzle piece,” said Hurtado.

​Hurtado and some of his students used drones to map the topography of Kilbourne Hole in advance of the RIS4E team’s arrival for their mock moon walks. To pick the best spots for these trial runs, Hurtado needed to identify places to be avoided: lava tubes or skylights, which are the openings of the lava tubes, that could be hazardous to the researchers. In a desert like Potrillo it can be difficult to determine elevation and the degrees of slopes. But with drone technology the scientists could evaluate where it was safe to step and where it wasn’t – down to the centimeter.

Drones could also be one of the tools that astronauts use on the surfaces of other planetary bodies. Excursions like the RIS4E field work allow scientists to practice with geological instruments and maybe one day compare their photos on Earth to images astronauts take on places like Mars.

“People may one day look at pictures on Mars and say, ‘Oh, I’ve touched this before,’” Scheidt said. ​

​“I hope to use this technology on other planets,” said Hurtado, one of several scientists on the trip who has applied to be an astronaut and still hopes to make it one day.