Global, Research

Research from a New Point of View

Research from a New Point of View

By Karl Bates, Laura Brinn and Eric Ferreri

Drone technology provides new opportunities for Duke research—both within the university and out in the field.

To get some overhead images while doing archaeology field work several years ago, members of Katherine McCusker’s archaeology research team rigged a camera to a weather balloon attached to a really long rope. They let the balloon drift upward, holding tight to the rope while hoping the camera was programmed properly to snap some photos.


“You hope the wind isn’t too strong and the camera is at the right angle,” McCusker, now a doctoral student at Duke, recalls. “That was our low-tech solution. We got some really nice photos – but they weren’t useful for research.”


McCusker remembers those makeshift camerawork days often now as she pilots drones over the Italian countryside, watching in real time as it records digital data.

…The use of drones is really changing how research is done.

— Lawrence Carin, Vice Provost for Research

McCusker works in Duke’s Dig@Lab, where professor Maurizio Forte leads a team that uses drones and other high-tech resources to efficiently examine Italian landscapes in search of clues to ancient civilizations. In Forte’s lab and across the university – and in higher education more generally – researchers are finding myriad uses for these relatively inexpensive new tools that provide a valuable new vantage point for examination of everything from ancient Roman ruins to the eating habits of whales to the migratory patterns of turtles.


“Drones are certainly introducing new opportunities for research in some important areas,” said Lawrence Carin, Duke’s Vice Provost for Research. “Especially in the environmental sector, the use of drones is really changing how research is done.”


At Duke, researchers from across the academic spectrum are finding uses for drones and other high-tech tools that speed their work.

Seeing seven centuries from above


An assortment of ruins mark what was once Vulci, an Etruscan city in west Italy.

Photo by Robin Iversen Rönnlund

McCusker has spent the last three summers in Vulci, an Etruscan archaeological site in the Viterbo province in Italy. With images recorded by drones, she’s able to examine the development of civilizations – first the Etruscans, and later the Romans – over a period of roughly seven centuries. Vulci is a treasure trove of history, and drones have helped McCusker and others with the Duke lab narrow their searches, create 3D models that suggest how communities looked way back then. With drone images as a key tool, the team discovered hundreds of new archaeological sites and tombs as well as a Roman forum, and was able to create a virtual model of the archaeological landscape.


“Drones and other tools have completely changed the speed and quality of research,” said Forte, a professor of both classics and art, art history and visual studies at Duke who has worked in Vulci since 2014. “It has had such a deep impact in so short a time. The research template is different now.”

A virtual model of the Vulci landscape. The latest tools and technologies, including drones, are mapping new discoveries in 3-D, as this fly-through rendering shows.

Carin, the research vice provost, said he’s seeing a steady increase in the number of faculty expressing interest in using drones in their own research – drawn by the relatively low cost and promise of a literal new view of their scholarly landscape.


There have been hurdles. Drones are still a new enough that regulators have scrambled to keep up with them. But there are now federal policies in place that Duke and other research universities follow. And Duke has developed its own drone use guidelines for researchers to follow, Carin said.

Smelling the smoke of burning trash


Buildings dot the horizon of Ahmedabad, India. The growing metropolis has a big trash problem.

Photo by Justin Pickard

On the outskirts of Ahmedabad, India, a drone helped Duke students and researchers sample trash-burning emissions from a municipal dump site that stood several stories tall. In a setting where it wouldn’t be safe for researchers to climb up high enough to collect the samples, the drone allowed the team to safely and efficiently measure a common source of air pollution over a large spatial area.


The team attached a small sensor—designed at Professor Mike Bergin’s lab at Duke—to its drone, turning it into a flying air quality monitoring station. Although some research applications require specialized drones, in this case the team used a recreational drone, given that it was easy to use and fly, and stable enough to manage the additional weight of the sensor while in flight.


Video taken by the drone also improves the researchers’ ability to understand fluctuations in the data.


“If we see a sudden spike or change in the emissions while we’re analyzing the data, we can check the corresponding point on the video to look for an explanation, such as a passing vehicle or somebody smoking a cigarette,” explained graduate student Heidi Vreeland. “When we look only at the sensor data, we can’t know what source caused the fluctuations—but drones allow us to find out.”

Fly along with a drone as it collects air samples above a smoldering municipal dump.

Bergin, Vreeland and their team acknowledge the limitations of using drones. Drones might not be universally applicable to the type of work they do, due to the risk of potentially interfering with the research process.


“Drones do attract a lot of attention,” said Vreeland. “We try to be careful that bringing in something like a drone doesn’t inadvertently cause people to change their behavior because they assume the drone is watching or measuring their activity.”

Flying whale snot!

In the Weddell Sea along the coast of Antarctica, drones allow researchers to collect valuable data in the most inhospitable conditions. 

Photo by NASA / John Sonntag

The sea and its shores are notoriously difficult environments to study, but a relatively unobtrusive drone that looks like nothing more than an odd-sounding seabird gives marine scientists some remarkable new abilities.


With it, scholars with the Duke Marine Lab can accurately count marine turtles as they lay eggs on a Costa Rican beach; differentiate juvenile seals and penguins from their parents  using a heat-sensitive camera; map and measure barrier islands before and after storms to see how much sand is moved; and monitor how humpback whales feed on krill in Antarctica’s Weddell Sea.


And a drone will go where no human would ever want to – through a shower of airborne whale snot to capture precious DNA.


“We can collect huge volumes of data from even the most remote or extreme locations,” said David Johnston, executive director of the new facility and assistant professor of the practice of marine conservation ecology at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. “ are transforming how we study and learn about the marine environment.”

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A humpback whale surfaces while feeding in the Bellingshausen Sea. The whales blow a spiral-shaped net of bubbles to trap their prey.

Photo courtesy of Duke Marine UAS

Duke’s is the first marine lab to win FAA certification to operate scientific drones and provide training. And these drones aren’t just those octo-copters you can buy at your local big-box store. They also have fixed wing airplanes that can stay aloft for 45 minutes, beaming VR video back to the operator’s headset.


Their biggest drone is an amphibious plane with a 9-foot wingspan that can fly for 90 minutes at a time. Like several of their other drones, this one can fly itself back and forth within a pre-defined area, like “mowing the lawn” for data.

Visiting student Lauren Arona learns how to launch an eBee drone.

The Duke drone workshop, just steps from the water in a former boathouse at the Beaufort, NC lab, is strewn with wings, wires and tiny propellers in various states of disassembly. The program manager, AKA jack of all trades, is retired Col. Everette Newton, who flew F-15s in the Air Force. Newton also trained the Duke archaeologists now using drones in Italy.


The training covers flight planning, flying drones, data management and analysis and provides a working knowledge of federal and state airspace restrictions and rules. It is intended to prepare more scientists for FAA certification and some participants also get the chance to build and fly their own unmanned craft.


And what teacher and student each learn is that this new flying technology is a pretty good research aid.


“As much as it hurts me as a pilot, the drone flies a lot more accurately than me,” Newton told Duke Magazine.

Tools of the trade

Exploring different environments demands different tools. Here’s a look at some of the various drones used by the Duke Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Lab as they study the world around us.

  • eBee

    With a 3-foot wingspan and weighing less than 2 pounds, the eBee drone is a light-weight tool for creating detailed aerial images, such as infrared maps of seal pups on a beach.

  • LEM-HEX44

    The LEM-HEX44 is a helicopter-style drone designed and developed by Duke Marine Lab UAS. It has six rotors and can fly for 44 minutes.

  • Altavian Nova

    The Altavian Nova is an amphibious drone with a 9-foot wingspan. It's designed to cover a variety of environmental conditions, making it suitable for coastal research.

Developing drone technology


Duke Engineering graduate student Ted Zhu demonstrates a drone that flies itself.

Professor Missy Cummings, director of the Humans and Autonomy Laboratory and Duke Robotics, discusses her projects involving drones and other autonomous tools.

Drones take research to new heights

Duke Magazine explores how researchers are using autonomous systems to do things people can't do—and teaching them to do things people can.