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Flying drones to uncover Earth

Nora Nieminski flying a drone
Nora Nieminski, PhD ’17, has piloted drones for research at sites across the globe, from New Zealand to Iceland and throughout the western United States. (Photo credit: John Todd)

Nora Nieminski

PhD '17, Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Geological Sciences

As a sedimentologist, Nora Nieminski, PhD '17, spends much of her time thinking about how clay, silt, and sand are deposited in the deep ocean – and what they can tell us about ancient landscapes or modern-day oil and gas reservoirs. But the difficulty of finding a perch from which to study coastal cliffs and a vast, seaside stretch of sandstone made her think about getting airborne. The answer? Learn to fly a drone.

“Anyone can fly a drone in a neighborhood setting – not too high, not too far – and take a few scenic shots,” Nieminski said. Gaining the skills to pilot a drone with a specific mission in locations with unpredictable wind and oddly shaped outcrops, however, took time.

Nieminski uses a touchscreen tablet to pilot her drone and snap high-resolution photos at carefully calibrated elevations. Each photo must overlap the next so she can plug them into photogrammetry software that stitches together common points to make a 3D model. She can then use the model to measure geological structures and help students or colleagues visualize and interact with landscapes from anywhere. Flight patterns can be preset into the device, but Nieminski says she prefers to keep her flight plans in her head. “I tend to go old school.”

Nieminski helped students learn to manipulate drone images to create 3D models of volcanoes and ancient ruins during a seminar led by geophysicist Tiziana Vanorio in southern Italy. Visit the full story and video package to learn more about the technology and the trip.

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