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How drones will catapult UNG students into booming industry
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JB Sharma, left, retired University of North Georgia faculty member, pilots a drone with Payton Duran, one of the university’s alumnus. (Photo courtesy of UNG)

The drone mapping industry is booming and the University of North Georgia has jumped into the pilot’s seat. 

Before retiring in May 2019, JB Sharma, former assistant head of the university’s physics department, decided to complete one last project. 

He assembled a team of the university’s faculty, staff and students to bring the Gainesville campus up to technological speed with cutting-edge drone mapping.

“This is the kind of science that is new and can be done with undergraduate students,” Sharma said. “It makes a very meaningful experience for them because they’re doing real science and producing a product that grows legs and walks.”

The research resulted in the creation of a detailed digital elevation model and multispectral image mosaic of the university's Gainesville campus. 

The project also led to authoring a chapter in the book, "Applications of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems: Best Practices and Case Studies.” The chapter was written by Sharma and other University of North Georgia collaborators, including Payton Duran, Lance Hundt and Zac Miller. 

Sharma, who edited the book, said a group of scholars came together to make it. He describes it as a guide for those planning applications for physical, cultural, biological and other mapping fields.

The book’s release is planned for fall 2019.

Sharma’s project consisted of using research-grade drones, also known as small, unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS). 

What used to be mapped by a land surveyor, Gainesville’s campus now has accurate photomaps, providing specific details like levels of vegetation.

Sharma said the multispectral image mosaic of the land provides four bands of spectral information, involving blue, green, red and infrared wavelengths.

For example, infrared light is used for imaging vegetation because chlorophyll found in plants absorbs it.

The map can be used to determine the size of the buildings, where vegetation is stressed, the extent of flooding and pinpointing the location of heat leakages in the university's facilities.

To quantify the change of the land, Sharma said the drone mapping needs to be consistently repeated. Luckily, the drone research will continue to be picked up by students, staff and faculty members. 

Sharma said the Louis F. Rogers Institute for Environmental and Spatial Analysis, located on the University of North Georgia’s Gainesville campus, is gearing up to start more drone-related teaching.

Sharma sees drones as a valuable tool to train students in basic STEM disciplines and mapping sciences, both of which are important for workforce development.  

“By 2025 this will be an $80 billion new sector in the economy with 100,000 new jobs,” Sharma said. “Some will go to college students working in the drone programs. All of this can and will enrich communities nationwide.”