On June 21, 2018 a small unmanned aircraft went whizzing over Virginia Tech’s Lane Stadium. Daniel Kuhar, a student at Blacksburg High School and member of the BHS Drone Club stood on the field, eyes fixed on the small craft as it zipped its way overhead, fingers twitching slight adjustments to its path on the remote controls.
Veronica Spradlin stood close by, monitoring the drone’s progress on a phone plugged into the control console, ready to take command should need arise. An Engineering teacher at Blacksburg high, Spradlin was the remote pilot in command for this mission, responsible for the safe completion of the first ever drone flyover of Lane Stadium.
It was Spradlin who organized the mission. She had been interested in how drones could be applied in engineering for years, but her interest in flying them began when she attended the Geospatial Technician Education (GeoTEd) Faculty Institute five years ago. Spradlin now participates in the follow-on project titled GeoTEd-Unmanned Aircraft Systems (GeoTEd-UAS).
GeoTEd-UAS is a partnership among Virginia Space Grant Consortium (VSGC), Thomas Nelson Community College, Mountain Empire Community College, the Virginia Community College System, and Virginia Tech and is funded by the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education (NSF-ATE) program. The mission of the GeoTEd-UAS project is develop and implement academic courses and pathways at Virginia’s community colleges to prepare small UAS Operations Technicians (UASOT) to succeed in the emerging workforce.
Spradlin was specifically curious about how drones could be used to capture 3D imagery for architecture. To satisfy this curiosity, she submitted a request to the Virginia Department of Education for an Innovative Technology grant. With the award, she purchased the necessary equipment; all that was left was to select the right structure to model. Deciding on the building, Spradlin said, was a no-brainer.
“I wanted to use a building that would be iconic for my students. Teaching in Blacksburg, Lane Stadium was a natural choice,” Spradlin said.
Of course, sending unmanned aircraft buzzing around such a well-known structure came with some inherent logistical concerns. The stadium itself covers over 25 acres of land, and it is situated in a busy, populated area not too far from an airport.
To address these concerns, Spradlin’s request was directed through Greg Calvert, Virginia Tech’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Safety Manager. Securing the right permissions took several months, but once they were attained, Calvert and Spradlin employed thorough briefings which stressed constant communication and situational awareness to mitigate the risks associated with such a mission.
“Two of the most significant [concerns] were flying multiple UAS in the same airspace and being able to maintain [visual line of sight] with the aircraft while flying patterns close to the structure,” Calvert said.
Such a big mission also required a large team to operate and monitor the drones. Spradlin had recently attended the 2018 GeoTEd-UAS Faculty Institute and when she shared her plan with the fellow attendees, they were eager to help. Spradlin recruited 10 additional people to perform various tasks for the mission including VSGC personnel and other GeoTEd-UAS attendees.
Spradlin’s faculty mentor, David Webb, supported her in developing mission plans and coordination of staff. Webb teaches at John Tyler Community College and is a GeoTEd-UAS consultant. According to Webb, Spradlin’s determination for the mission was essential in accomplishing it.
“She’s capable of doing almost everything,” Webb said. “Once she’s aware of something she’s just one of those people that’s almost like a force of nature in terms of getting it done.”
So, the day of the flight dawned and the eager group of done enthusiasts started the morning with a safety briefing at 8:30. There would be thorough communication via radio throughout the mission and an observer would be stationed on the roof of the stadium, keeping an eye on the weather radar as reports of afternoon thundershowers threatened to put a damper on the day’s work.
The drones began snapping photographs of the stadium, flying both grid and elliptical patterns in and over the stadium. For the next four hours, Spradlin and her team would take more than 2,000 photos of the stadium’s interior and exterior.
Those photos will be fed into a series of computer programs for high level analysis, which could take several weeks to complete. When it’s finished, Spradlin will have a detailed 3D model of the stadium.
The purpose of this specific mission was to capture images that could be processed using various software programs into a full 3D model of the stadium which she hopes to print with a 3D printer.
“I will use it as an example of how drone imagery can be captured and used in CAD programs,” Spradlin said.
Aside from 3D modeling, there are myriad applications for drone technology, including thermal imaging, remote sensing and mapping, cinematography, conducting inspections that might be dangerous for humans, and even animal herd management. Spradlin is also hoping to incorporate the science of drones into her school curriculum in the upcoming year, using custom build kits to explore the electrical and mechanical systems within the craft.
For Calvert, the use of drone technology is something that he believes will impact all our lives in the near future.
“We are witnessing an incredible period in aviation history and we will all interact with drones, and each other, in some manner through this technology,” Calvert said. “This particular project demonstrates the positive educational and commercial value of drone use.”
(Photography by Stacey Kuhar)