Beyond the classroom walls: Teaching drone field operations and applications in Sian Ka’an


Blog, Coastal & Marine, Conservation, General

It was hot, the sun beaming down on us as the attendees squinted to better read the iPad against the bright glare. ¡Listo! the students called out, followed by the unmistakable whirl of propellers as the drone lifted itself into the sky.

On May 21 and 22, members from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, US; Engineers for Exploration at the University of California, San Diego, US; and Centro para la Biodiversidad Marina y Conservación from La Paz, Mexico, held a workshop on drone application and operations in partnership with Mexico’s National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONANP)-Sian Ka’an at the Instituto Tecnológico Superior de Felipe Carrillo Puerto in Quintana Roo, Mexico.

We had just finished a five-day tour to image various mangrove sites in Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a protected area sitting on the eastern edge of the Yucatan Peninsula. Facing the clear blue waters of the Caribbean, Sian Ka’an is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve spanning 652,000 hectares and encompassing coral reefs, palm fields, and mangroves forests. This reserve, established in 1986, is the crown jewel of Quintana Roo and is home to endangered jaguars, gentle manatees, and bright pink flamingos.

Yet, despite the rich biodiversity encompassed within Sian Ka’an, CONANP—the government organization tasked with maintaining the region and enforcing regulation—has limited capacity. CONANP-Sian Ka’an has only 21 rangers, balancing one ranger to every 31,000 ha of forest, or the equivalent of two rangers to the entire Los Angeles county. Building on our work with CONANP in Baja California Sur, we thought our knowledge of drones and the drone methodologies that we have developed could help increase this office’s capacity to survey the region for natural hazards, illegal activity, and carry out general monitoring activities of its natural resources.

Beni Guerrero of Centro para la Biodiversidad Marina y Conservacion and Eric Lo of Engineers for Exploration giving an introduction to the class. Photo by Astrid Hsu.

As such, we held a two-day workshop and invited local students as a way to involve the community and engage the next generation of conservationists. We were joined by 22 attendees, including undergraduate and graduate students and CONANP rangers. We started off day one with the basics: what are drones, the different types of drones, and the myriad applications of these tools. From mangrove monitoring to firefighting, we asked the attendees to practice their creative thinking in how drones can play a part in natural and urban ecosystem monitoring, especially in their own backyards. We continued on and broke down the roles of different members on a flight crew, introduced various hazards (such as poor weather like the impeding rain!), and the limitations of drone technology.

We then delved into the nitty gritty—drone control and piloting. We walked students through all the functions of the remote control of a DJI Phantom 4 Pro and how to read the associated drone piloting software (DJI Go 4.0). After a brief lunch, we headed to the great outdoors to get some hands-on pilot practice. We ended up on the campus’ soccer field, a great location free of obstruction on the ground for safe landings as well as directly above so that pilots (and the rest of the attendees) can have direct line of sight to the drone.

Out on the soccer field, Beni Guerrero reviews flight crew roles and drone controls for the first flight. Photo by Astrid Hsu

The next day, we introduced flight planning using the DJI Ground Station Pro software. Drawing polygons, setting image overlap to enable 3D orthomosaics, and defining altitude were some of the many aspects that we covered, emphasizing that setting these factors depended on the project questions at hand. For example, if one needs high resolution but also requires coverage of a large area, drawing a large polygon, with a low altitude (i.e. 20 meters) at 85% overlap would suffice—but at the cost of the long time needed to capture the imagery and going through many batteries to cover the study site. This thinking reflected some of the challenges that we face in the field, such as the lack of access to electricity and time crunch for usable daylight hours to image multiple sites, that make planning essential to efficient field operations. In the afternoon, we guided the students through more flight practice with an emphasis on practice flight planning. This time, though, we encountered some rain—a great time to also exercise our hazard assessment!

Image from a practice planned flight. Find the workshop attendees! Hiding in the shade not only helps us better read the iPad since the sun’s glare can make reading difficult at times, but also helps field teams keep cool and prevent against heat related illnesses.

Overall, our team greatly enjoyed introducing these versatile tools to the workshop attendees and sharing our field experience with the curious minds of young conservationists. We even showed videos of our encounter with wildfires in Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve (read here (link to NG blog)), which further emphasized the versatility and value of drones. With this first workshop under wraps, we’ll revise and improve this experience for future instances of the workshop—next up, La Paz, Baja California Sur in July!


Astrid Hsu
Research Associate at SIO. As a National Geographic Explorer and MAS graduate in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Astrid focuses on generating interdisciplinary solutions to marine conservation problems through science communications and collaborative research.

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