SUNY Buffalo State explores research opportunities with drones

Chance Morrow, Reporter

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a drone in the sky.

SUNY Buffalo State has joined the likes of many around the world in using a new piece of technology that literally puts one’s eye in the sky. Dr. Tao Tang, a geography professor at Buffalo State with interests in geographic information systems and remote sensing, formed a group of Buffalo State students to use this new tool to make scientific discoveries.

Drones and similar flying devices have been in use since the twentieth century and were initially used for military reconnaissance purposes. With the rapid growth and advancement of this technology, drones have been made more user-friendly and obtainable by the general public.

Tang was fortunate enough to receive a grant that would get him a small drone of his own to conduct new and innovative research.

“The applications for the drone are almost endless,” Tang said.

But he settled on first using the equipment for an analyzation of the Buffalo State parking lots during the course of an average weekday to determine the patterns and characteristics of drivers. The unmanned helicopter made it possible for Tang and his team to get the data and analyze it quickly.

In addition to this project, Tang has used the drone to study an invasive species, known as the Japanese Knotweed, found in waters throughout the country, including New York State. Once established, the invasive plant can spread rapidly and threaten native plant communities.

This was a perfect opportunity for Tang to use the sophisticated aerial abilities that the drone had to offer.

“We can now view real-time images from the Drone using a smartphone,” Tang said. “This was something that we were not able to do before with regular helicopters. The helicopter would take photographs while above the ground, but we would not know if it captured the images that we needed until it came back down.”

The success of this project influenced the professor to continue research on the invasive species that plagues local New York State waters.

The Water Chestnut is another ecological enemy that is prominent in Lake Erie. It is an invasive aquatic plant that was released into the waters of the Northeast and spread vastly through New York water ways. Tang and his research team are currently in the planning stages of this project and hope to begin, once the lake thaws, early next year.

Lily Jiang is a current Buffalo State graduate student in charge of controlling the drone in Tang’s research.

“The challenge for this project will be landing the drone on a boat because of the long distances that it will have to travel above the water,” Jiang said.

Buffalo State senior geography major Michael Monroe has also worked with Tang in past projects and agreed that there are some restrictions on using drones at this time.

“You have to ask for permission to use drones in public due to privacy concerns. You also have to obey FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] regulations,” Monroe said via email.

However, Tang was not silent on his hopefulness about the future applications for this technology.

“The drones are already being put to use by companies like FedEx and Amazon to make deliveries,” he said.

The uses for drones do seem to be endless; the military can watch for suspicious activities thousands of miles away, grocery stores can send off a drone to deliver weekly groceries, cinematic filming can be taken to a whole new extreme, and search and rescue procedures can be become more efficient than ever before. But who’s to say, it’s all up in the air for now.


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