The Holy Grail of academia is a tenure-track faculty position at a top-tier university (actually it’s an endowed chair…but I digress).
I had achieved that goal. I was running my own research lab in ecology, teaching undergraduate classes, and mentoring graduate students at a major research institution. I had made it, with just the tenure hurdle to go. I was writing papers in fairly decent journals and helping to build the wall of knowledge (in this case in the sciences). I went to discussion groups and heatedly discussed controversial new publications. I attended conferences and debated the next ‘big question’ in science over pints with colleagues from across the country. I loved academia.
Then, I discovered drones.
I had never really been into remote-control planes or even really used geospatial tools in my research. I started playing around with drones to survey some common garden experiments I had running with trees. I thought drones might help me measure plant traits, a tedious task that requires constant attention over a growing season. I started trying out different hardware and cameras. The drone industry at this point (late 2014) was just starting to become off-the-shelf and still required some zip-ties and duct tape – two things I knew well from being a field ecologist.
Soon, I was hooked. Flying things, autonomous missions, sports action cameras. Very cool!
I started going to drone meet-ups, digging into the online DIY drones community, and following drone news and regulations. I met more and more people in the industry in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I happened to be on leave for a few months. I was fascinated by the excitement of the new technology and an industry in its infancy.
I could envision how drones as a new tool that would transform the field sciences overnight. They allowed for incredibly high-resolution data to be collected at very precise repeated measures. These are flying robots after all! New, lightweight mapping cameras were emerging, along with thermal, multispectral and lidar options. They could provide an unprecedented amount of data at an incredibly affordable price (way cheaper than most scientific instruments).
More important, drones were becoming connected to the cloud via software on smart phones. With the right app, scientists could potentially link drones across research teams, organizations, even globally to capture data in highly standardized protocols with the touch of a button. Done right with a little imagination, drone data could be ‘crowd sourced’ at unprecedented scale with minimal financial investment in hardware and software. If only scientists knew the capability (which most didn’t and still don’t really)!
Drones could and will change science as we know it and I could be at the center of the action. So…I went for it.