The most ridiculously amazing thing happened to me today. I stood next to a regular human being who flew a freaking drone over a portion of Amazon forest and mapped it. It took 20 minutes and it was the MOST. BADASS. THING. EVER!
The thing, first off, is commercially available, which is insane. Sure, it costs $25,000, but in terms of scientific equipment that’s a vaguely accessible price. It’s made of some sort of fancy styrofoam and has embedded in it a little slot for a radio (to signal back to “home”, i.e. where you launched it so it knows where to land), a GPS (so it can fly a route that you pre-define using your friendly neighborhood GIS software), a camera (so it can take photos and map the place you want it to map) and two little rudders. Today the flight path we sent the drone on (!) flew over a riparian buffer zone of intact forest that my friend Marcia Macedo has studied. “Urubu” (“vulture,” as we took to calling it) flew along the route at 300 m altitude (which is crazy high when you’re watching from the ground) and took photos at intervals along the way that were stitched together for one big photo of the forest at a 10 cm resolution. And then the drone flew itself back to us and landed calmly in a patch of soybean field without needing any extra instructions. An entire chunk of forest, photographed at 10 cm resolution, from a styrofoam airplane drone. That is nuts!
Manuel and his two colleagues (also from UFG) are here because they brought a group of 35 undergrads out to the field for a “short course,” a hands-on week long course that brings undergrads into field research environments (“prática integrada de campo II”, or the spring semester’s integrated field practicum). The students were great and I even gave a guest lecture about my nitrogen work in English while Marcia translated. My attempts at teaching in Portuguese were pretty hilarious.
Tomorrow we head back to town for the weekend, during which time I hope to post about my first chunk o’ data (rad!) and my adventures this week wearing lab gloves while scrubbing bat droppings. Research: very, very glamorous!