Attack of the Drones! New perspectives on fieldwork learning

Originally published on Netskills Voices

Image of a Phantom UAV
It’s Bug Season by Adam Meek CC-BY 2.0

News stories and viral videos about drones seem to crop up on a fairly regular basis but what does the emergence of this new technology mean for education?

I’ll start by saying that perhaps the proper term should be “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle” (UAV) rather than “Drone”. There’s debate about what the difference is but for some the main feature of a drone is that it is semi-autonomous. The devices I’m talking about here are remote controlled aircraft.

UAVs are pretty much “a thing” now but they are not uncontroversial. Aside from their military role people will be most familiar with the multi-copter style devices although fixed wing UAV’s have been in use for quite a while. They’ve been in the news recently over their potential use for Amazon deliveries as well as their contribution to international sporting events!

The rise of the civilian UAV is closely tied to the arrival of devices like tablets as control devices and small HD-capable cameras like the GoPro. A fairly robust set of equipment will cost you hundreds, rather than thousands.

That puts UAVs within the budgets of individuals and certainly education institutions.

UAVs in fieldwork

My interest in drones is about how they can enhance fieldwork and it’s not hard to see where the benefits might be. The ability to see landscapes from different perspectives can be very powerful, providing a useful mid-point between direct observation and full remote sensing.

UAVs with cameras could be a useful resource on a field trip for reaching hard-to-access landforms. This is useful for all students but will also be useful in supporting students with impaired mobility. This novel take on the selfie shows how a view of a landscape can be expanded using a UAV-mounted video camera.

Of course, photography and video only take you so far. Measurement is also important, which is where approaches like photogrammetry and 3d scanning come into play. Here the tools become much more advanced and therefore expensive but this video of a field trip to create a 3D rendering of the Matterhorn shows. You can see the results of the survey at about 2mins 50secs.

Considering another avenue, have a look at this video of “drone racing” Endor-style through a forest. It not only shows the maneuverability of these vehicles but also suggests what might be possible if you could combine the use of UAVs with 3d headsets like Oculus Rift for watching a live camera feed or captured recordings (see 1min 54secs).

Existing practice

There is already extensive practice in the use of UAVs for research and fieldwork. The list of speakers at the University of Exeter’s UAVs in Environmental Research event in July 2014 shows some of the people involved in this area, the breadth of applications and gives links to all the presentations.

The University of Worcester’s Institute of Science and the Environment also ran an event on Remote Sensing from Small Unmanned Aerial Systems in 2013. It was filled to capacity.

Addy Pope from the Go-Geo team at EDINA helpfully pointed me towards the work of Tim James at Swansea University who has been using UAVs to monitor the dramatic glacial calving process.



The starting point for UAV’s is in the hundreds of pounds. One of the most popular devices, particularly with amateur and semi-pro film makers is the Phantom UAV which seems to start at around £300 for some models but goes up nearer to £1000 for different packages. As the popularity of UAVs increases expect more choice to become available. I was intrigued by this open source UAV that was looking for funding on Kickstarter earlier this year. (Look at it’s funding target and what it eventually achieved! A measure of the popularity of UAVs?)

Technological limitations

Any UAV will be limited in terms of range and ability to function in difficult weather conditions. Battery life is also something you need to consider. For example, the senseFly eBee UAV has a flying time of only 50 minutes.

Safety (personal and equipment)

Safety is an important part of any fieldwork and using UAVs may help to avoid some more risky situations. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t want to place students anywhere near spinning rotor blades without properly trained staff and a full risk assessment! Operating in public spaces also brings risk to non-participants. There’s also a risk to the equipment, especially if the weather turns against you.

Legal aspects and privacy

As most consumer level UAVs are small and light they are exempt from most Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) rules on airworthiness but in commercial use cases permission may be needed. According to the CAA website, permission is not needed if “the aircraft will not be flown close to people or properties, and you will not get ‘valuable consideration’ (i.e. payment) from the flight.” This is obviously applicable only in the UK. Fieldwork undertaken abroad means checking things out with the local authorities. This article from The Next Web on the personal use of drones is a handy summary for the UK and US but if in doubt always check.

If geosciences aren’t your thing…

…maybe this more aesthetically creative use of UAVs will appeal. It’s quite lovely.

Almost as interesting is the Making off… video that goes with it.


What would fieldwork be like if you had one of THESE?

I wondered how people taking students out on fieldwork might make use of something like the AR Drone

For doing remote HD filming/imaging of locations…

…and flips! (rad!)

It’s not cheap, mind. And the range and battery life are limited (although it’s tricky to find out exact numbers from the product’s homepage).

Plus, we should probably have a think about the safety and privacy issues of drones in private hands with cameras in built-up areas!

But if you used it as an additional tool for surveying a location from elevated angles there could be all sorts of useful applications. In a limited sense it could be used to improve accessibility to some difficult-to-reach landscape features.

Definitely need to get one to test in the office! 😉

Event report: Enhancing Fieldwork Learning Showcase 2012

Digested Read

A welcome return for an event that really should be a regular feature of the calendar. The technology has moved on in the last year and there seems to be more confidence and a sort of academic mischief-making in the air!

The full story… 

I think my favourite event from 2011 was the Enhancing Fieldwork Learning Showcase in Margam, South Wales where I did a brief session on QR codes and fieldwork. More importantly, it was an event that introduced me to a whole new community of people, new ways of working and reconnected me with original discipline of geography.

This year I was invited back to talk about digital storytelling which I summed up here.

Here are some of my highlights and personal reflections from this year.

What was the same as last year? Same broad range of attendees from different disciplines and perspectives. Loads of varied presentations including giving a schools’ viewpoint on geography and fieldwork. There was the same levels of enthusiasm and fun from attendees and the organising group. The feeling of fieldwork being an intergral part of not only people’s subject areas but of their personal identities. Good food.

What was different? A greater sense of adventure, confidence and risk-taking all round. The profile of the types of technology.

Technology? Last year, one or two people had talked about using iPads but most mobile devices had been phones. This year it felt more like iPads were becoming an increasingly essential bit of fieldwork equipment (but not a panacea!).

Thats good, right? Yes. Well, sort of. There was no doubt that there’s a fantastic range of possibilities that the iPad brings from the functional to the creative and I certainly wouldn’t have been able to do my session without it. But there’s a distinct lack of alternatives out there. This left a lot of questions buzzing in my head about increasing consolidation of one ecosystem (even if it’s a good one) and the reliance on computing as consumption. All being well, in the next 5 years students arriving at universities and colleges will have benefitted from a ICT curriculum which builds skills in coding and computing as construction and creation. How can fieldwork incorporate this? Is there a place in fieldwork for Arduino or Raspberry Pi?

Who was participating? A powerful aspect of the showcase was it’s multi-discipline audience. We had Alan Parkinson from Mission:Explore encouraging us to look at fieldwork in a new and irreverent way. David Rogers of the Priory School in Portsmouth showed how a school with very limited access to outdoor space can make the most of its environment and why being a “troublemaker” can be a lot of fun AND have a measurable impact on results. Sarah Taylor from Keele University showed off the use of the Vertex IV in her research and teaching. Rick Stafford from Bedfordhsire Uni talked about using mobile devices in a citizen science project to collect biodiversity data. Judith Lock talked about the ecology work she had done based on what she had learned at last year’s event which gave a nice feeling of continuity. And Brian Whalley showed off the potential of iPads as field notebooks (with honourable mentions going to Skitch and Notability). That’s not the half of it but no doubt there will be more information on the project site shortly.

Any other ideas rattling around your head? We did a bit of horizon scanning and thought about these…

  • Fieldwork as hacking. Lots of talk about the recent FSC hack day. Maybe field trips could be something similar. Identify a question or problem at a location, then have students working on how they would answer or solve the question and deciding on or designing the tools to do it.
  • Multi-discipline multi-age fieldwork. Field activities tend to happen in subject areas. I remember from my time at Uni that the geographers went to Turkey and the geologists went to Norway. Why not mix it up? What happens when a geopgrapher, a geologist, a computer scientist and an artist do fieldwork together?

Sounds like the start of a really bad joke. Fair enough. But also, David’s presentation on Priory made me think that his students are geographers too, all part of the same apprenticeship continuum. Why can’t fieldwork involve a range of ages and backgrounds? Students working with professors working with local communities etc etc.

  • 3D Printing. One of the FSC guys talked about the possibility of using Rep-Rap with survey data to create 3D models of landscapes, transects and the like. Imagine modelling the flow of water over a hillside you just surveyed that day and printed out.
  • Technology and fieldcraft
  • What will we be talking a out next year? There wasn’t much discussion of augmented reality which was interesting. Maybe that’s to do with connectivity in the field, that its readability is less than perfect or that creating AR materials can be so darn complicated. With Google Glasses and other HUD devices on the horizon what might fieldwork look like in a efw years’ time.
  • Access to open data stream could be a powerful addition to fieldwork. We had a demonstration of how this might work with live river discharge data from a gauging station being displayed on an iPad as we stood on the bank of the Severn.
  • Wouldn’t it be great if there was a tablet dock for hooking up environmental sensors. Something like the Alesis I/O dock but for these bad boys instead of audio.

Anything else? There was loads of stuff going on but I’d suggest following Enhancing Fieldwork Learning on Twitter and Pinterest to keep up with further reports from the event and future development.

In the meantime, as well as some of the activity from the event I took a couple of pics of the rather lovely surroundings. I’m off for a cup of tea.

Footloose Digital Storytelling at the EFL Showcase 2012 (#efl2012)

Enhancing Fieldwork Learning 2012 Showcase

I had obviously behaved well enough at last year’s showcase in Wales to be invited back for another event from the HEA funded Enhancing Fieldwork Learning Team. This year was at the rather lovely Preston Montford FSC just outside Shrewsbury.

I had mixed feelings about going. Last year’s event had been brilliant but last time I was in Shrewsbury there was an earthquake. Thankfully, this year was fascinating educationally and boring seismically.

The event brings together geographers, geologists, biologists, environmental scientists and the like to share their experiences of enhacing fieldwork through the use of technology.

Now, I don’t do fieldwork (although I do like to get out and about) so my session was mostly about seeding ideas and experimenting. 

This year I chose to focus on “Footloose Digital Storytelling”. I had a morning session to talk about what digital storytelling was and then embarked on a rash plan to get the entire group to film, edit and publish their own digital story using iPads and iPhones (one person used an iPod Touch).

We used the free version of Splice which, although doesn’t have the most features of mobile editing apps, is one of the simplest and suited our purposes really well.

It’s not without its bugs and quirks but in the end the group had created 16 movies and given that they’d only really had an hour to make it I was pretty bowled over.

For the record, I’d never suggest squeezing an actual storytelling session into on hour. It needs time to do it right. This was a bit hit and run and the attendees did really well to cope. One said it had simultaneously been a good experience and hell on earth, which sounds about right.

Originally I’d thought of setting them the task of creating a movie with a specified title but in the end I thought I’d surrender that side of things to them and just asked them to tell their own story of the event. Let many flowers bloom. You can see most of them here but here’s a couple showing the varied approaches.


Mobile devices are not ideal as tools for this sort of thing but it’s still pretty amazing what that you can shoot, edit and share a movie using your phone or tablet. YOUR PHONE!


Pip Hardy likened this to criticising a talking dog. Do you quibble over its accent and vocabulary?

As part of the experiment we discovered that Splice works quite happily without any wifi or 3G connectivity. A couple of the attendees are now considering getting their students to do digital storytelling whilst on field work abroad – I’m eagerly awaiting the results of those.

Coming shortly – my reflections on the rest of the event…

Event report: Enhancing Fieldwork Learning

The Digested Digest

Get out more!

The Digest

Fieldwork is an essential part of the learning experience for the geo, geosocial and life sciences that needs protecting given current squeezes on finances. We saw how mobile learning is enabling a blurring of the boundaries between field, lab, library etc. People are more interested in QR codes than I expected. We got wet.

The Detail

We had 2 days based at the Margam Discovery Centre, near Port Talbot where a wide range of people presented what they had been doing in relation to technology enhanced fieldwork. It was an entirely appropriate venue with fantastic facilities and a feel that you were in the field even when you were in the building. It was run by a project team  funded by the Higher Education Academy.

I was there mainly out of my interest in digital mapping and geolocative stuff and also because I’m a geography graduate so it feels like home turf. I was also presenting a short presentation on how QR codes can be used to enhance fieldwork by creating easy access to extra layers of information.

I Audioboo’d my reactions to the main activities here…

Enhancing Fieldwork day 1 (mp3)

…and made a short video of some of the stuff we did here…

Enhancing Fieldwork Learning from Chris Thomson on Vimeo.

Incidentally, both Audioboo and the Vimeo app are great ways of easily creating digital media content in the field. The video was filmed and edited on my iPhone without any need for connectivity.

This was the session I delivered (without the running around in the fresh air bit). 

For the practical activity I placed 10 laminated sheets with 2 QR codes each on around the site. One QR code linked to a Google Map of a significant UK location where the participants had to guess the connection. The other QR code was a one of the Top Tips from slides 11 and 12. I figured it was more fun to make them hunt for the advice than just spoon feed it to them!

I was a bit worried I’d picked a topic that people would already be familiar with but in the end it was new ground for a good number of attendees and a few people were fomenting their own fieldwork plans involving QR codes by the end of the weekend.

Main learning points from the weekend:

  • Everyone there was a passionate advocate for fieldwork as an effective learning experience and there was plenty of discussion about the uncertainty facing departments with squeezed budgets. How assured is the future of fieldwork in institutions? 
  • There was a determination that technology should be there to enhance the field experience and make it accessible to all students. It shouldn’t be there to replace it.
  • Fieldwork should be fully embedded in curriculum planning with a clear sense of progression of skills development from one year to the next, gradually building students up into independent field researchers.
  • Technology allows us to do the current things better (thinking about the collaborative spreadsheets mentioned in the Audioboo) as well as creating new opportunities.
  • Access to devices is complicated and relying on students to use their own isn’t the easy answer. What if they object to effectively subsidising someone else’s fieldwork because they have a device and the other doesn’t? Poorer students who can’t afford a device are at a disadvantage.
  • Best tech experiences
    • Seeing ipads used in conjunction with Twitter and Flipboard for students to co-create field guides for New Zealand prior to visiting. Carina Fearnley (Aberystwyth).
    • Using iPads to layer GIS, satellite and maps imagery while in the field, then using GPS to help students contextualise that information with their current location. Apparently it’s difficult for many students to do this. Peter Bunting (Aberystwyth)
    • Wifi. In a field! Trevor Collins and John Lea demonstrated their portable wifi network that can extend over kilometres thanks to a series of relays 
    • Gigapan, which you can see demonstrated by Ian Stimpson (Keele) in the last few clips of the video, takes multiple images of a location, zoomed in and in hi resolution that can be stitched together to create interactive panoramas with gigapixel levels of detail. Here’s an example. Great for pre-field trip familiarisation, giving students with mobility issues a chance to see inaccessible locations or simply having an “if wet” option.
    • Students in Singapore conducting surveys of a mangrove swamp, entering their data onto a shared spreadsheet on a tablet over wifi, enabling the group to analyse their data and discuss it all within the context of the site (Julian Cremona, Field Studies Council)


Thinking back to the fieldwork I undertook as a student, they were transformative experiences not just because of what I learnt but also because they were important milestones on the way to becoming a geographer; it helped dismantle the boundaries between staff and students. It was an essential part of my student experience and I think it would be a shame if fieldwork was squeezed out for some courses.

Also, fieldwork is a multi sensory experience. I’m keen to discover more about using things like AR, QR codes, and mobile digital media but if it means less being part of the landscape and more staring into an LCD screen we’ll have lost something.

Lastly, I’m sorely tempted to investigate whether I could make the Netskills geolocation workshop a residential event and run it at a field centre like Margam Park. It would certainly be more challenging but a much more fulfilling experience to mix computer lab activity with field work [ponders].


Making QR Code Treasure Hunts

Been thinking about how you could set up a QR code-based tresure hunt activity – scanning a QR code in a location brings up a Google Maps link showing where the next clue is, and so on. It might be a way of structuring field trip activities – at each location there might be a task to complete, data to collect etc.

I was having problems getting this to work mainly because of a quirk of Google Maps that is way annoying!

Some QR code creators have an option for a link to Google Maps – you just enter the lat/long coordinates and the QR code generator does the rest.

The problem is that Google Maps only likes lat/long if it points to an actual address. If you enter coordinates for somewhere off-road it will default to the nearest highway. It seems bizarre that Google should purposefully do this. If I’m providing exact coordinates for a location isn’t it safe to assume that’s what I want to see on the map, not a road that might actually be a few miles away!

The coordinates for this code should be on a tree in the field to the north (51.558791N,-3.72299W) but the pin drops on the road 400m away.


So, after a bit of hunting on the forums here’s the solution.


Ignore the QR code generator’s automatic feature ike QR Stuff has. Go straight to Google Maps and turn on the satellite view (so you can see the location more accurately). Right click on the exact location and chose What’s Here from the list.

The coordinates will show in decimal form in the search bar above the map.

Before you get the URL link for sharing write “loc:” (in lower case) before the coordinates and hit “Enter”. This will refresh the map centred on your location.

Go to the “Link” button on the right and grab the URL from the pop-up box. (HINT: Ticking the short link function will result in a less complex QR code that is more scannable.)

Go to your QR code generator and paste in the link. Print the code out and away you go.

This QR code is set up to work properly.





Making location-based activities with ARIS


I’d stumbled upon ARIS about a year ago but never had a chance to try it out until recently. Given that I’m now doing workshops on geolocation stuff and I’m presenting at an Enhancing Fieldwork showcase, it seemed the right moment to try. 

ARIS is a free tool for creating location based “games” that can be accessed and played via an iPhone app. It’s similar in many ways to HP’s Mediascapes that I did some stuff with back in Sheffield a few years ago. It’s been designed by a team based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Using a Flash based editor on your desktop you add “objects” to a Google Map and then set the behaviours for each of them. Objects can be:

  • Items – virtual objects that can be picked up and stored in the iphone app’s inventory, or carried and dropped by players
  • Plaques – information and media (audio and video) pop-ups, perhaps telling you about a location or giving you new instructions
  • Characters – essentially virtual people that you can programme with branching converstaions for a player to interact with.

Each of these items can include “requirements” so that they behave in a particular way. For example a character won’t appear on the map for a player to talk to until then have picked up a certain item.

Objects and the tasks and behaviours surrounding them can then be grouped into “quests”. So, to complete a quest a player has to find a certain number of items, talk to various characters or visit locations etc; there then might be a follow-up quest to complete, and so on.

When the player is out in the field using the GPS-enabled app, they access the game on the server (you need internet connectivity) and away they go. As they get within a defined proximity of an object, the phone will vibrate and give off a (pretty loud) tone. They then view the plaque, pickup the item or interact with the character. The player can see a map of their location and the game can be played blind or the designer can choose to reveal the location of some or all objects.

Another neat touch is that the app allows the player to take pictures or record audio within the game. In the mock-up I did I had a “Will Allen” avatar pop up while I was outside Haymarket Metro instructing me to take a picture of a particular statue. Once I’d done that, the avatar popped up again to confirm I’d done what he asked. Neat.

You can find much more detailed info on their site and get started here.

Some random initial thoughts:

  • There’s obvious applications for enhancing fieldwork, either from the point of view of giving students added information about the locations they are visiting or going to the other extreme of highly interactive stotytelling activities like the Dow Day “participative documentary” example on the ARIS website.
  • The ability to easily create dynamic objects is a step forward from the clunky (but pioneering) Mediascape.
  • I designed my game to have a mix of objects that were viewable on my iPhone’s map all the time along with others that were hidden or appeared after completing a task. Having a completely invisible game is likely to lead to confusion. At least consider having a starting location marked.
  • It’s just about simple enough for more able school students (and I guess most FE and HE students) to be able to create their own content. You don’t need any web development skills.
  • I think I prefer this sort of approach to other AR apps like Layar or Junaio. They’re difficult to create stuff for and cost to publish.
  • The iPhone is a much more reliable and enjoyable device for this than those nasty EDA things we used to use for Mediascape!
  • Having said that, the GPS isn’t pinpoint accurate so I had to include a fairly large margin of error (30-40m) on the placing of the objects. Having the game in a built-up environment also created problems for the GPS accuracy. Not insurmountable, but I think these games are likely to work better wheer they range over a wide area.
  • Having the iPhone as the only device that can run it is a real barrier. They suggest a possible solution for mifi and GPS-enabling iPod Touches but I’ve no idea how well these things work. An Android option would also be good but a web app would be even better.
  • I encountered a few server errors and app crashes when testing mine. I was still able to complete my “quest” but it was enough to make me feel jumpy about running this sort of activity with large numbers of students.
  • Planning and testing are really important to ensure functionality but also comprehensibility. Do game players understand what they have to achiveve and how to go about doing it? It could easily get frustrating for players without clear directions.

For all it’s problems, it’s still really good.There’s lost more stuff I’d like to try with ARIS but for reasons of time I’ll have leave it there for now.

Leave a comment if you’ve had any experience with it.