Originally published by Medill New Service, Climate Change.
A DJI Phantom IV drone sits ready to take off and map a geological field site on the Tibetan Plateau, near Litang, China.
Drones have proven themselves to be multidimensional little devices: from shooting HD video for the film industry, to potentially becoming online superstore Amazon's future means of merchandise delivery. But beyond filmographers and curriers, these little robots can also be scientists.
A geological research group from the University of Maine's Climate Change Institute has adopted drones as part of the team, using the devices to map their field sites—this summer on the Tibetan Plateau.
University of Maine graduate student Mariah Radue pilots a drone as it maps a geological field site.
"I find it a game changer," said Mariah Radue, a graduate student at the University of Maine who is piloting the DJI Phantom IV drone this field season in China, "It helps in that I can revisit the field area really well."
The team of paleogeologists uses the drone to collect images of glacial landscapes through series of pre-planned flight routes, which they can later synthesize into highly detailed maps and gain insights into the area’s past changes in climate.
"Our two main goals are to create aerial photographs, which are really detailed—we can see our boulders on them—and then the second goal is to create digital elevation models, which are basically topographic maps," said Radue.
Research assistant and Comer College Prep High School student Maya Sheriff catches the Phantom IV drone as it returns from mapping a glacial valley near Litang, China.
At 13 cm per pixel, the maps developed by the drone footage are at far higher resolution than available satellite data. The images are so detailed that "we will be able to see the height of our tents," said Radue.
These images help the scientists relate the morphology of the landscape to the boulders they are sampling, allowing for better understanding of the boulder's history. Boulders set upon moraines, or hills formed by the points of a glacier’s maximum ice extent, suggest that they were deposited there during a time of climate stability, where the glacier was at equilibrium, neither growing or shrinking. Whereas boulders in more sporadic locations suggest a time of global warming, where they were dumped on the landscape as the glacier was melting and receding up the valley. By comparing the dates of the different glacially deposited boulders, the scientists can better understand our planet's climate history, as well as project how human influence will affect it in the future.
“One of the most important things that we do in this type of work is mapping the perimeter of the former ice age glacier,” said Aaron Putnam, professor of paleoclimatology at the University of Maine and principal researcher of the project. “It’s the geometry of those paleo glaciers that can help us reconstruct past climate,” said Putnam, “The droning has opened up a whole new world for us.”