On the first day of June, Colby College student interns met at the Maine Lake Resource Center in Belgrade Lakes to learn about the role drones would play in this summer’s research effort.

The morning began with the students sitting around a large table while two licensed drone pilots from Colby College explained how they have used drones to collect scientific data, and what they would be doing this summer for Dr. Whitney King, Miselis Professor of Chemistry at Colby.

The pilots spoke about the high level of training and vetting they completed to obtain commercial drone licenses and their obligation to operate the drones responsibly and respectfully under FAA requirements and Colby policy. With much enthusiasm and expertise, they discussed the specific work they would be doing for this summer in the Belgrade watershed.

Outside, they demonstrated the operation of the drones, sending one up and maneuvering it for the students to see, operating it at various altitudes, and taking photos from the docks at the MLRC. They showed how the altitude, camera angle and polarized filters can all be used to obtain different images. The landing of the drone right into the hands of one of the pilots elicited a round of applause. Back in the building, the photographs captured by the drone were displayed.

Drones, an unmanned aerial system, are powerful academic tools. Unlike manned helicopters or planes, drones are small, lightweight — under five pounds — cost effective and easy to deploy. They typically use four or eight rotors, a high-resolution camera that can be used in a fixed or moveable manner to take still imagery and video shots, and a cargo area to carry sensors and other specialized devices.

They can fly a path, orbit an object, track a moving object and be programmed to fly autonomously to capture a specific region. When used with embedded GPS information, the images can be used to create high resolution maps that are superior to existing satellite imagery and generate 3D models from which both length and volume can be determined.

This summer the drones took photographs that will be used to update the shoreline maps of the seven Belgrade Lakes that were completed seven years ago. Comparing the new photographs with the old maps will reveal the extent to which the shorelines have changed and which locations have been most affected by erosion and improved by LakeSmart practices.

After a bit of experimentation, another potential goal is to locate cyanobacteria and metaphyton blooms and track their movement in the lakes. It is also hopeful that the drones can be used to locate the presence of milfoil to hasten the removal of the invasive plant. Both are novel and adventurous ideas, but highly advantageous the water quality work in the Belgrade watershed.

With this technology flying over our lakes, the sky is the limit.

Brenda L. Fekete is the interim executive director and lake science manager at Maine Lakes Resource Center in Belgrade Lakes. Kathleen Jameson is the director of development for the organization.