Academics and Research

Geography students use unmanned aerial vehicle to explore development in Nicaragua

Associate geography Professor Matthew Taylor, who began taking students to Nicaragua in 2005 to study issues related to development, made his latest trip there in December. Taylor and his students brought along a new teaching tool: an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), this one a quadcopter whose four propellers are controlled remotely by a hand-held radio transmitter.

Before the 10-day class, Taylor and several graduate students tested the device for several weeks almost daily in the courtyard outside the Boettcher Center, sometimes with unintended results.

“We did crash one,” Taylor says. “One of the propellers flew off.”

Taylor was able to obtain funding for a new UAV, which cost about $800 for both the UAV and the camera to mount on it. But after the mishap on campus, Taylor and his students in his Nicaragua: Development Dilemmas class were leery of sending the UAV beyond 2,000 feet above ground for fear it might spiral out of control and land in the ocean. The camera is waterproof but not the vehicle itself.

Nonetheless, the UAV enhanced the trip to Nicaragua’s Southern Pacific Coast, where Taylor and his students studied an area that has undergone development as tourism has increased.

“They’re studying landscape and livelihood change related to the increase in tourism in the area from multiple perspectives,” Taylor says, “from the perspectives of the locals, the investors and also not-for-profit organizations. What happens to the locals, basically, is the big question.”

Many of those locals are fishermen, whose equipment consists of nets and small boats with old, limited outboard motors. The boats’ range is only about six miles offshore, and since gasoline is a major expense, the consequences of a trip that doesn’t yield a good catch can be harsh.

The fishermen rely on what Taylor termed “accumulated knowledge” that is time-tested but not foolproof to determine the fishing conditions on a given day. Depending on the species being sought, Taylor says, “the relationships between water clarity and fish abundance” are crucial. And water clarity can be determined accurately by a UAV and camera.

“What we’re trying to do is make it easier for fishermen to earn a living,” Taylor says. “Water clarity is something fishermen can use as an indicator of what type of fish are available, and our purpose, given the increase in tourism, is to provide fishermen with as much information as possible so that they can make economic gains because of this new market. If they’re spending less on getting their fish, their profit increases. I don’t think we got high enough with this instrument to give power to the fisherman and to be of benefit to them, so we would just need a different instrument. But it works.”

That also was the conclusion when observing land cover, which, for example, would include spotting increases in the likes of trees, pastures and condominiums.

“The land cover impacts infiltration rates of rainfall and also impacts evaporation rates of moisture in the soil,” Taylor says. “The bigger question is how is land cover changing, and therefore, how does that impact recharge to the aquifer?”

The UAV used on the recent trip approached a height of 2,000 feet. The capabilities of the device when used for the first time in Nicaragua were explored on the journey, which was about logistics as much as any particular research questions.

“The broad question was basically, ‘How can this technology benefit local lives?’ Taylor says, “with subsequent questions like, ‘Can we determine water quality with the technology?’ or “Can we help local fishermen in other ways?’ Those questions were categorically answered in the affirmative. We can, and will, be able to assist.”








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