Mapping the Earth from Above

Jarlath O’Neil-Dunne
Vermont 4-H
VTeen 4-H Science Pathways Cafe


In February of 2020, the VTeen 4-H Science Pathways Café welcomed Jarlath O’Neil-Dunne, the director of UVM’s Spatial Analysis Lab and his team, to speak about his work in spatial analysis and the different types of drones they use for various jobs. Jarlath and his team do research at the UVM Spatial Analysis Lab and use geospatial technology to work on projects related to environmental justice, overhead mapping, natural disasters recovery, deforestation, water quality and even topics such as community health. More recently, the team has been working on modeling and assessing urban ecosystems, in attempt to better understand the future of our planets health. The results of the urban tree canopy studies have been used to establish goals throughout several communities in hopes for a greener future. Jarlath and his team walked us through all of the steps and the equipment needed for many of these tests, talking about the difference between mapping an area and using the images taken to better understand an areas ecosystem. We had a discussion about why being able to work with drones is useful when talking about larger issues, such as climate change and why their work was so important to our planets future. We then discussed actual situations drones would be needed environmentally and in groups to draw up some possible methods of implementing drones into these different types of experiments. Jarlath explained that there were many different ways to photograph different areas but that each situation required a different type of drone or a different type of program in order for the tests to “fly smoothly.” Without the results of Jarlath and the UVM’s Spatial Analysis Labs experiments, our community would be much less aware of the current climate change effects and we would be less motivated to begin making changes. It’s safe to say that the overhead pictures and maps he and his team offer give our community a different perspective on climate change and a sense of urgency to make a change. To wrap up the event Jarlath’s team each individually talked about their research and the schooling choices that landed them where they are today. Some members discussed the planning and coding behind the drones flight pattern while others shared stories of flights and previous projects. Many of the team members shared stories of being unsure which schooling path to choose until entering the lab and knowing that the job was right for them.

Spatial Analysis is often not given full credit for its versatility and widespread use. Many see the study as a way to get an overhead view but not everyone recognizes the fact that many of the lab results aren’t about the initial picture but the albedo of the objects in the image or the amount of greenery in the urban areas and how it’s grown or increased over time. Jarlath and his team demonstrated many different ways that the study was interesting, relevant and most importantly, a good time. Many of the studies today wouldn’t be so accurate if it weren’t for drones and geospatial technology. The drones and other types of technology offer a quick, affordable (for the most part) and more detailed view of an area than say a satellite and by investing their time and work into running these tests and experiments the crew has gathered a lot of new information not only about the effects of climate change but also what’s causing it. Another key takeaway from Jarlath’s presentation is that science plays a large part in the environmental justice movement. After all, science is about discovering things and solving problems. Dealing with climate change, a monumental problem will require collaboration between scientists, engineers, activists, and teens!

Hands on Activity

Jarlath and his team set up four stations to program, discuss and analyze the drones and their ability. At the first station, we looked at different images taken by drones, we compared the original image to the image measuring the reflection of the area, comparing the use of both photos and discussing possible reasons for the different images. The next station involved actual drones. There were three drones present and teens were able to learn about the different project types each drone would be used for and the pros and cons of each device.

Teens learn about why different drones are used for different projects

We got to hear stories of success and failure of each of the drones and learned that the equipment can be chased and hunted by birds, something that the scientists need to be prepared for. Next, we compared two models of the same drone, discussing longer battery, material (the more recent one was made of foam, something that made for a better and longer flight) and the location of the camera on the two. We discussed the different models and the improvements between the two and we once again got more stories about the fieldwork each drone had been involved in. The final station involved planning the drones flight. They had displayed one of the teams more recent projects, photographing and mapping the Causeway in Colchester, and we discussed the three different flight paths that would need to be developed (in order to get the full view) as well as the different perceptions and “emergency” situation (the bird being a prime example) that each drone plan would have to consider.

Comparing different drones

Each station offered the teens a different perspective and gave us an idea about the amount of planning that went into each of the drones flights as well as how the images could be edited to give us, even more, understanding and perspective.

Learn more about the UVM Spatial Analysis Lab:

Photos from the café: