Since the 1990s, NASA engineer Geoff Bland has been involved with aerial imaging, leading to the development of the first patented small electrically propelled drone that could be outfitted with a variety of scientific research sensors. This patent would eventually lead to a partnership that would benefit thousands of students.
In 2010, Wayne Regional Educational Service Agency (RESA) contacted Bland, looking for a way to monitor ponds and streams where water samples were being collected. Wayne RESA, which supports schools in Wayne County, just outside Detroit, had students comparing water quality in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with the rest of the state. Conditions at the water collection sites weren’t being monitored, and the students started looking for a way to put up cameras and take pictures of the study sites. Ultimately, the group applied for and was granted a small NASA Cooperative Agreement Notice (CAN) award to explore options. Organizers had no idea Wayne RESA was about to be at the center of a project involving a multitude of organizations across the country, from Fairbanks, Alaska, to the Chesapeake Bay.
Through a series of contacts, the group ended up in touch with Geoff Bland, who works in the Earth Science Field Support Office at Goddard Space Flight Center’s Wallops Flight Facility. Bland had worked on other educational programs that incorporated remote sensing and Earth observation data, and he had also recently invented a new, low-cost, easy-to-use device for keeping cameras and other sensors in the air. Bland’s interest in simpler, cheaper solutions had him exploring kites, but he found that the traditional tool to stabilize a camera on a windblown kite didn’t provide the stability he needed and tended to get tangled. So he and NASA technician Ted Miles decided they would build something better.
Their Aeropod device is aerodynamically stabilized and is not attached directly to the kite but to a line that hangs from a ring suspended between ball bearing swivels on two segments of kite string. It was patented in 2012. Aeropods can be equipped with the same sensors commonly flown on drones and require far less training. They also never run out of power.
Wayne RESA’s leadership, with Bland’s collaboration, ultimately came up with the Investigating Climate Change and Remote Sensing (ICCARS) Project that was piloted in 2010. ICCARS ended up being more robust and having more of an impact than the group’s initial goal to monitor water quality test sites. The team developed 60 lesson plans for middle and high school students, plans intended as both classroom course material and extracurricular activities. The program used Aeropod gathered Earth-imaging data to understand the science of climate change and its relationship to changes in land use and land cover. To license the Aeropod technology at no cost, the Goddard Strategic Partnerships Office created a new educational license that required feedback rather than monetary payment. This newly created license not only provides a way to get Aeropod technology out in a controlled manner and into the hands of students and teachers, it also creates a potential commercial market allowing companies to license the technology and fill the need for Aeropods. End users can develop their own Aeropod, as long as they indicate what they like and don’t like about it. Licensers also must share any data relevant to NASA’s interests and any of their own advancements to the technology.
ICCARS organizers wanted students to understand the parallel between what they were doing with imagers on kites and what NASA does with its many Earth-imaging satellites. Aerial images taken in the visible and near-infrared spectra indicate the health of crops, so participants might analyze imagery collected in their community with Aeropods to determine biomass and predict crop yields. They could then look for relationships between crop growth and factors like temperature changes.
The program continues to provide customized handheld field data collectors with a software package for processing images, pinpointing locations with GPS, and transmitting data back to the classroom. Students share data with the ICCARS community through the project’s online portal, and they share it with the world through the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) program, an international school-based science and education program.
After the two-year CAN funding expired, Wayne RESA continued its ICCARS work, and in 2016, NASA granted the agency a five-year CAN award to expand the program into what’s now known as the AEROKATS and ROVER Education Network (AREN). AEROKATS, or Advanced Earth Research Observation Kites and Atmospheric and Terrestrial Sensors, refers mainly to the kite-based Aeropod portion of the program, while ROVER introduces the Remotely Operated Vehicle for Education and Research, a remote-controlled watercraft for collecting water data. The ROVER series of in-water measurement systems were also developed at Wallops by Bland and Miles, in collaboration with the University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES).
The program used Aeropod gathered Earth-imaging data to understand the science of climate change and its relationship to changes in land use and land cover.
Along the way, several partners have joined in as co-investigators or collaborators on AREN, with Wayne RESA as the lead institution. The University of South Florida has developed an engineering mentoring program for middle school students, designing and building ROVERs, while the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, is rolling aspects of the project into an educational program studying the warming Arctic. The Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center is helping to develop equipment and operations. Goddard and UMES continue to actively participate in development and implementation of these innovative tools, and new partnerships also include Anasphere Inc., Montana State University, and the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, and Washington College.
Other partners include Drexel University, Oklahoma State University, the American Kitefliers Association, and Black Swift Technologies, LLC.
What has made ICCARS and now AREN so popular and effective is that students are getting out in the field, collecting real-world data, and coming up with their own questions to answer with that data. All the while, Bland says, he’s made sure NASA’s rigorous operations procedures are part of the curriculum. Like a rocket launch, each flight or mission is a team effort in which all participants have specific roles, checklists are developed and followed, risks are assessed and mitigated, and operations are preceded and followed by comprehensive briefings.
Bland says students who participate in the programs end up better equipped to work with aviation and develop scientific research projects.
Currently, dozens of schools in Wayne County participate, and countless students and teachers from coast to coast have also gotten involved. The reach and the impact from this program have allowed students, teachers, and the community to gain new skills and learn more about their community.
Bland says he wants the program to improve the quality of future science and bolster NASA’s ranks. “I hope the young people participating today turn into the next generation of NASA engineers, scientists, professionals, and support staff, people who will help us continue to understand our own planet and explore the universe,” he says. “And, hopefully, the program is fun, too.”
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