News & Stories

More than meets the eye...

Drone technology helps us to see the invisible.

Drones, or Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), can be used to collect information that’s invisible to the human eye. Dr Arko Lucieer is a Senior Lecturer in remote sensing and GIS in the Surveying and Spatial Sciences Group, School of Land and Food at the University of Tasmania. His research focuses on the use of UAS for quantitative remote sensing and high-precision aerial surveys for environmental and agricultural applications.

What we call drones, Dr Lucieer calls Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or UAS. For him they’re a means of collecting images and data in real time.

We used to rely on satellite images like the ones you’d see on Google Earth, but they often don’t allow us to get close enough to the ground, and of course the images you see are already out of date. Sometimes what we need to see is obscured by clouds. Drones are the perfect solution, as they let us capture information when we need it and exactly where we need it.

“Drones also allow us to capture detail outside of the visible spectrum. The human eye sees only part of what’s there. We mount special sensors onto the UAS that see in a wider range, including the infrared, which means that suddenly things such as the health of a crop or tree community can be seen in stark relief.

“I’ve used drones in Antarctica to monitor the growth and health of the only plant that grows there, a moss that lives for hundreds of years and which may give us important information about climate change.

“We’ve recently worked on a local Tasmanian vineyard to assess the health of the vines, and with Tasmanian poppy farmers to look for ways to estimate the alkaloid content of the poppy heads.

Other research involves monitoring landslides and coastal erosion,” said Dr Lucieer.

Some people imagine that flying drones would be a bit of fun, but Dr Lucieer says it is a lot of responsibility to fly something worth so much money. 

Researcher Dr Lucieer thinks drones are the perfect way to monitor landscapes and coastal erosion.

We fly with state-of-the-art sensors, such as laser scanners, thermal sensors, hyperspectral scanners, and high accuracy positioning devices. The unique imagery that these sensors acquire allow us to make the invisible visible. Our goal is to translate these image into ultra-high resolution maps, which ultimately improve our knowledge.

“Our drones, along with their specialised detectors, can be worth more than $60,000, which can be scary to fly with at times,” he said.

“We’re in manual control when the drones take off, after which the autopilot takes over to follow a pre-defined flight path with GPS waypoints,” Dr Lucieer said. 

“In any case, as exciting as the drones are, we’re more interested in the sensors and the data.

“Talking to people in different industries adds a lot to my job satisfaction, and makes the work relevant. They’re experts in their areas and sometimes they ask questions or put out there what they’d like to solve, and that triggers a new field of enquiry for us to pursue,” said Dr Lucieer.

“I love having students from all kinds of backgrounds, ranging from surveying to computer science and agriculture to geography, who find something within this field that sparks their interest. They learn a lot from each other, and I learn from them as well. It’s a true collaboration.”

Interested in conducting your own research? Apply now to become a research student.