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PhD Student at N.C. State University Makes Customized Drone to Collect Water Samples

BY Zacc Dukowitz
19 August 2020

As a doctoral student at North Carolina State University, Will Reckling has been using drones to study potentially harmful algal blooms.

Photo credit: Abe Loven

Right now, drones are helping Reckling in his algal research by:

  • Mapping waterways so he can find algal blooms
  • Collecting water samples that contain algal blooms

The second application—using a drone to collect algal blooms—has been made possible by a unique water collection device Reckling created just for his research.

The device is made by attaching a plastic mesh harness to a drone with carabiners, fishing tackle, and an 80 pound-tested fishing line. In its current form, the harness can hold two fifty-milliliter plastic tubes.

Finding a way to rig the drone so that it could collect the algal samples proved challenging, and required several rounds of testing.

According to Reckling, in the first iterations of the device the drone’s propellers blew away the algae he was trying to collect, revealing the need for a longer line so that the drone wouldn’t have to get so close to the water.

Eventually, he settled on a design that allowed the mesh harness to hang twenty feet below the drone as it filled up the two tubes with water.

Every ounce matters on the drone . . . we had to experiment with the length of line that would be suitable to get a water sample and yet not have the rotors impact the surface of the water.

– Will Reckling

The reason Reckling went to the trouble of creating the water collection device is that collecting water samples by boat is less than ideal for algae research.

A boat can potentially break up the algal blooms while you’re trying to collect them, and it can take hours to find good samples by boat.

Photo Credit: Will Reckling

Using a drone for this work significantly reduces the amount of time needed to find samples, and also improves the collection process once they’re found (assuming you have one of Reckling’s custom harnesses, that is).

Now that he’s created the device, Reckling can go out and get samples on the Chowan River—one of his research locations in North Carolina—in just a few minutes, instead of spending hours trying to locate and capture a sample.

Drones for Biological Research

Mapping and collecting algal blooms by drone is just one way Will Reckling uses drones in his work as a PhD student in the Department of Marine, Earth, and Atmospheric Sciences (MEAS) at N.C. State University. Reckling has also combined LiDAR and machine learning with drone technology to map rare and endangered plants on the tops of mountains and in other remote locations.

[Related reading—Drones in Ecology: An Interview with Ecologist and FAA Certified Remote Pilot Dr. Richard Alward]

One goal of his research is to develop methods for the use of machine learning to locate and identify rare plants based on environmental characteristics and other data collected by drone.

And he’s making good progress. Reckling has paired his UAV experience with MEAS assistant professor Ryan Paerl’s knowledge of biology and lab analysis, leading to an influx of new findings and questions for their research.

We’re learning so many things we didn’t know . . . There is endless information coming out of this work.

– Will Reckling

Surveying and GIS by Drone

Drones have not only helped Reckling and his colleagues collect physical specimens for their research, they have also helped them improve the quality of the geospatial data they collect on plant specimens and the surrounding environment.

Satellite data can become outdated quickly, since satellites only pass over a given area intermittently. But with a drone Reckling can capture environmental changes in real time, allowing him to update his data more often and in more detail.

Image source

Reckling is no stranger to geospatial work with drones—before starting his doctorate program he studied geospatial analytics, receiving a degree from the Master of Geospatial Information Science and Technology (MGIST) program at N.C. State University.

And before either of his academic endeavors, Reckling was a drone pilot and a drone project manager, working at an electric utility company. In his work there he used sUAS to help with vegetation management and transmission line engineering, among other duties.

[Related reading—Drones for Good: 14 Inspiring Examples of Drones Doing Good around the Globe]

Even though he’s working toward his doctorate, Reckling still does UAS work. He currently serves as the Director of Geospatial Technology at Theorem Geo, where he conducts surveys and GIS work for a large utility company.

If you’d like to learn more about Reckling’s work you can check out his academic profile here on the N.C. State University website, which includes a list of his publications as well as a list of the projects on which he’s worked.

Know of other ways people are using drones for research in biology or ecology? Share what you know in this thread on the UAV Coach community forum.

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