Eye in the Sky: Should educators jump on the drone bandwagon?

Update: 10th April 2019

The original title of this blog post was: “Eye in the Sky: How and why educators should jump on the drone bandwagon!”, penned in my geeky enthusiasm in the aftermath of having played around with a drone (below). 

Today I attended a very good session about drones by Richard Allaway at the GA Annual Conference. And it made me reflect and think… well… drones, yes, I want one, but do I need one (in terms of education)?

So the original post remains below – as I’m still enthusiastic about them, but also, take a look at Richard’s drone page which contains the presentation he gave.

28th July 2018

When you think of words that make up an 18 month old’s vocabulary, you’ll get ‘mummy’, ‘daddy’, ‘all gone’, ‘milk’, ‘car’, ‘doggy’ etc… But what about:

Yep, you heard right! My youngest has added ‘drone’ to his vocabulary. I’ve recently had the chance to have a play around with one. In this article, I’ll give my experiences and thoughts, with examples, about possible educational use.

A ‘drone’ is a type of UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) or UAS (Unmanned Aerial System), and it only seemed like yesterday that they were big news; yet another piece of technology making us think that the future is here.

A BBC article from 2010 (yes, only eight years ago) in which Sci-Fi author WIlliam Gibson states that drones will become “cheap and ubiquitous”.

An lo-and-behold, you can pick up a cheap (but probably no better than a christmas cracker toy) drone for some pocket money nowadays. As you can see from the screenshot below, there actually are 23 different models you can get for less than $50 (£38) from this US store:

From this particular US retailer, which itself is quite ubiquitous, most drones (54) are priced $100 or less. Although drones are available across the price spectrum up to over $2500, the are a bunch for sale just shy of $1000. Also, take note of the ‘product features’ selection list.

Indeed, drones have become cheap and ubiquitous. So, here’s an idea for educators out there. The next time you have the chance to put in a ‘development bid’, or an opportunity arises for you to have a bit of spending money (don’t laugh, we can dream!), how about going in for a drone?

If you are an educational establishment, you probably going to want a drone with at least the following features, for the following reasons:

  • Integrated camera – I’m certain the reason is obvious…
  • Video capture – While taking pictures from a drone can lead to an endless production of images for educational use, video gives that little bit extra and prestige to a project. You’ll see some examples later of why the ability to capture video is worth the extra couple of quid.
  • Built in GPS – Adds an extra dimension and skill to drone work, such as mapping. But also, a drone with a built in GPS will naturally have more features that you can use which require positioning. They are also less likely to get lost!
  • Rechargeable – Keeps costs and waste down by having to keep buying batteries. Drones with their own rechargeable batteries tend to have longer flying times. If the batteries are removable, then buying spares and charging them mean you can take the drone out on field trips without worrying about power.
  • Memory card – A drone without the ability to take a memory card will not be able to take much footage, nor in high definition. Memory card means you can take them out of the drone and pop them into your computer for quick and easy downloading. The files will almost certainly be in a format that you can view, play and edit straight away.

So selecting the options above on that particular US retailer’s website, I still get the choice of 11 drones, with a price range of $699 (£530) to $1799 (£1370). Those prices are well within a development bid’s budget. Also, when you consider that a bunch of textbooks at £25 each for a class of 30 students costs £750, then…

Out here in Bozeman, Montana, we had a big family get together on my father-in-law’s side. One family member brought along one such drone that falls within this price range and has at least the features above.


The official website for the DJI Mavic Pro Platinum ‘Quadcopter’ gives all its specifications and features in glorious commercial detail.

The drone, it’s controller and a smartphone dock attached to that. Downloading the app from the drone’s makers on your smartphone will give you far more functionality including streaming footage from the drone’s camera and a GPS track and position of the drone on a map.

After a couple of demonstrations, I had a go myself. I’ll state here, that you best not rush into using a drone. This is one of those pieces of equipment where reading the instructions (or watching operational videos) is pretty important, or you open yourself up to some epic fails:

However, unlike trying to erect an IKEA wardrobe, at least it’s more fun to go over the instructions of a drone.

The drone snaps the grin on my face as I have my first go! SayGeeeeeeeeeeeek”!

While the drone is in flight, you can press a button on the right to take a snap, or a button on the left to take some HD footage. Here, I flew the drone over the glacial trough in which the house is situated in.

The footage is lovely and smooth while the drone is moving forward, but jerky when the drone turns. However, I later found out that you can turn a setting on which causes the turning, pitching etc to be a lot steadier, leading to smoother footage. You can also pivot the camera independently to point it straight forward all the way to straight down. The video shows that you can certainly fly a drone down a landscape and take footage where students can identify physical and human features.

The software that comes with this drone has may flight features, but I only got time to try out a couple. ‘Active Track’ is where the drone stays in-situ (it only moves if it has to, or you tell it to) and keeps the camera focused on an object or person of your choice.

(Don’t worry, the house isn’t on fire. I was multi-tasking, also grilling for dinner!).

Another tracking function is ‘Follow Me’, where the drone will ‘chase’ after you as you move.

Cameo appearance from a visiting friend and my youngest, there!

Off the top of my head I can think of a couple of ideas for the use of ‘follow me’. Perhaps following a float down a river to see the current it takes? Filming athletes, where tracking them can help the PE teacher and the student evaluate technique or performance? (Doesn’t have to be only Geography! Joint development bid between departments?) 😉 Be aware, however, that the sensors for most drones are in the camera which means if you are ‘following’ or ‘active tracking’, best not do either where there are obstacles such as buildings or trees.

The GPS function on the drone will help to track its flight. These tracks can be downloaded and worked on later; the drone can effectively be used for digital mapping. No doubt it can be tied into most GIS packages.

The GPS function will put place-marks onto the map. The ‘H’ represents ‘home’, which is GPS stamp of where the drone took off. Telling the drone to ‘return to home’ will automatically fly it back to this point and land. The blue circle is the operator position and the red arrow is the drone.

The GPS track above shows the path the drone took during a test flight to go take a closer look at a rock outcrop up the mountainside behind the house. Myself and others have hiked to that outcrop, which seems minutes away from the house (but actually took a couple of hours on foot). So, how well will the drone do? How close can I get (maintaining a large margin for safety/error)? As you can see, pretty damn close enough to get a detailed look at the outcrop!

There was plenty of battery left for me to do a little more flying before selecting the ‘Return To Home’ function. The drone auto-piloted back to the ‘home’ GPS tagged spot and landed itself.

Here’s a selection of pics both from the drone and from the ground.

I would love to get a drone for the school. Also, as a geography teacher, imagining taking one on field trip just fills me with glee. It isn’t hard to do a quick web search to research potential uses of drones by schools across the curriculum:

In fact, the potential in using drones for exploring human and physical geography is so great, there has been a recent academic study on it:

Garrett & Anderson (2018) Drone methodologies: Taking flight in human and physical geography

This all looks seems great, doesn’t it!? But before you go rushing off and buying one, you need to be aware of the legal requirements for operating a UAV.

You cannot fly drones anywhere. There are restricted air spaces, and even if there aren’t, you probably would be better off double checking to see if you need permission to fly your drone over an area. Fortunately there are some free tools such as AirMapIO, No Fly Drones (where, if you so wish, you can add your own restriction), and DJI’s Fly Safe map. If you are in the USA, the authority to abide by is the FAA, and in the UK it is the CAA.

Also there is common sense. Best not fly a drone where they could be seen as invading privacy, causing a distraction or being a danger.

I don’t think any of the above should put you off, however. So, while you wait for that golden schmoozing opportunity in order to obtain one for your school or department, you’ll have to make do with footage taken by others. But, have no fear! There is no shortage of good drone footage. Just a Google search for what you are after followed by the word ‘drone’ will have a good chance of finding something. Like ‘cliff erosion drone’:

Or ‘Colorado river drone’:

Drone video of Colorado River water flowing into Palm Springs. (Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)

And finally, here is an online database of drone footage. The beauty of this being it is in the form of an interactive world map. Have fun exploring!

Check out this interactive map of drone footage at travelwithdrone.com. If you have your own drone footage, you can set up an account and upload.


zzlogoP.S. My sabbatical is self-funded and un-paid. Please check out my paid resources at TES and Teachers-Pay-Teachers! If you are looking for teaching resources for all subjects, not just Geography, please check out ZigZag education’s catalogue by clicking through my affiliate link here. If you do find something useful and purchase, I’ll get some commission to help me pay for a public transport fare etc! 😉 I also have free resources on my portfolio page, and you can check out an index of which of my blog entries match which parts the various UK GCSE Geography syllabuses!

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