Drones take PSU research to new heights
Author: Cristina Rojas, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Posted: July 10, 2018

The drone whirred to life, then shot skyward for a bird's-eye view of an upland prairie habitat in Cooper Mountain Nature Park just outside Beaverton.

 Equipped with a camera, the small white drone buzzed overhead, snapping photos of the flower patches below. It was controlled on the ground by two Portland State University College of Liberal Arts and Sciences students who were mapping the field as part of a class project.

"Up, up, left. OK, stop," said George Farr, a senior biology major. He was watching the drone's live video feed on a tablet as his classmate, junior Peter Philavanh, used the remote controller. Working as a team, Farr directed Philavanh to fly the drone over paper plates that marked specific flower patches so he could snap photos.

The two are students in biology professor Mitch Cruzan's plant reproduction course. The field trip to the nature park was an opportunity for the dozen or so undergraduate students to apply what they had learned in the classroom to a hands-on research project using a combination of new and old methods. Drones are normally prohibited from the 230-acre park, but the class received special permission from the Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District and the regional government Metro to fly it over the prairie.

Cruzan, whose lab was one of the first in the country to use drone technology in plant research and publish a paper on what plant ecologists should know before they try their hand at it, said drones allow researchers to map a landscape more quickly than with traditional methods — and without repeatedly trampling the sensitive habitat.

"It's better for the habitat and we get much more accurate information than we ever could get just on the ground," he said.

On this day, the students split into pairs, each tasked with identifying patches of bachelor's button, a flower with colors in shades of white, blue and purple. They then plotted the GPS coordinates and collected samples of the stigma, the female part of the flower where the pollen is deposited.

Farr and Philavanh, using the drone, captured aerial images.

 Back in the lab, the students would be using the images, data and information they gathered to study the distribution and density of the plant, and whether that has any impact on pollination.

"We'll compare areas where there's a high density of flowers to areas where there are smaller patches to see how the distribution of plants affects how much pollination is going on in the field," Cruzan said.

Cruzan said he wants students to have access to the most advanced technologies available. He first purchased the drone, a DJI Phantom 2 Vision+, as part of a five-year National Science Foundation-funded project in 2014.

"By combining traditional methods of observation, microscopic methods to look at pollen loads, and more advanced technologies like the drone and image analysis, we can give them an unmatched experience," he said. "They're actually doing a project that's very cutting-edge and what we're trying to do is transfer our research methods to the classroom and give the students the same kind of experience with the technologies that we're able to use in our research."

Cruzan's course is structured like a course-based undergraduate research experience, or CURE. The classes are part of a growing effort nationwide to get more undergraduates involved in research before they graduate. 

"Most of the experiences they've had up to now are getting a lab protocol and following it like a recipe," he said. "Here, we've given them a foundation of ideas in plant ecology and reproduction and we're asking them to innovate. Here's some tools — go."

Cruzan said the research experience challenges them to think critically and adjust when something doesn't go as expected.

"They get to make a lot of decisions about how they're going to use these data, which ultimately is what it means to be a scientist," said Jaime Schwoch, a master's student and graduate teaching assistant for Cruzan's class. "It's not really about having all the correct answers, but about making progress, asking questions and stumbling around a little bit."

For the students, the opportunity to get out in the field also helps bring abstract concepts to life.

"To learn biology, you can learn a lot in the lab and on a computer," Schwoch said. "But ultimately, you have to relate that back to what's happening in reality."