Introducing an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) for Hands-On Learning in Remote Sensing

Anders Knudby


Grant program: Teaching and Learning Development Grant (TLDG)

Grant recipient: Anders Knudby, Department of Geography

Project team: Paul Sirovyak, research assistant

Timeframe: February 2013 to December 2014

Funding: $5,000

Course addressed: GEOG 253 – Introduction to Remote Sensing

Description: At SFU I teach a series of three remote sensing courses (GEOG 253, 353 and 453). Remote sensing can be seen as a two-step process including, (1) data gathering using instruments placed on aircraft or satellites, and (2) data processing using image processing software on computers. All three remote sensing courses are based on 2-hour lectures that introduce the theoretical aspects of both steps as well as 2-hour labs where the students apply the theory in practice. However, currently the labs are only able to cover the practical aspects of step 2, because no remote sensing instruments are available for the students to practice with. In the labs, students therefore currently make use of pre-packaged data and focus exclusively on data processing, not data gathering. This leaves step 1, data gathering, a crucial part of the remote sensing subject, only theoretical and abstract for the students.  I think this gap reduces the enthusiasm students develop for remote sensing as a whole.

The main goal of this project is therefore to introduce the use of a small and inexpensive Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) equipped with a digital camera and the necessary navigational instrumentation to introduce a hands-on data gathering component to the labs. The introduction will initially happen in the GEOG 253 course; experience from this course will be used to evaluate its introduction in GEOG 353 and 453. Working with the UAV will allow students to experiment first hand with gathering their own remote sensing data, and it will provide a tangible object around which to base discussion of the theoretical aspects of remote sensing data gathering. It is my expectation that a UAV-based GEOG 253 course, as opposed to the course as it is currently run, will be an improvement in several respects, each to be investigated as a specific research question listed below.  Research questions will be answered on the basis of a comparison between the results of GEOG 253 courses taught with and without a UAV. Most of the courses taught without UAV will be from the past (2011-2013).

Questions addressed: Does working with a UAV in GEOG 253,

  • improve student learning of remote sensing data gathering material, specifically: a) camera calibration, b) georeferencing, c) geometric accuracy, d) spectral bands, and e) spectral signatures?
  • improve student learning of remote sensing data processing material (which will not be directly taught using the UAV)?
  • increase student satisfaction with the course?
  • increase student enthusiasm for remote sensing as a subject?
  • increase the number of students who decide to take GEOG 353 and GEOG 453?

Knowledge sharing: I will present project findings at the brown-bag lunch seminar series in the Geography department and invite relevant faculty from departments that could also make use of UAV-gathered remote sensing data.  Assuming the project is successful in gathering information on the use of UAVs to teach remote sensing at the university level, I expect to disseminate findings in the Journal of Geography in Higher Education. With increased use of UAVs at Canadian and other universities I expect the findings to be of interest to a broad audience.