Foundation funds drones to fly over PCC and beyond

Greg Littlejohn/Courier - Photography instructor Christopher O'Leary and geography instructor Brennan Wallace stand in front of the Shatford library at Pasadena City College on Thursday, January 14, 2016. Wallace and O'Leary were awarded a grant to purchase drones for an interdisciplinary project.

Share Button

If students soon notice drones whizzing over their heads on campus, it is the result of the largest grant the PCC Foundation has awarded so far.

For the first time the foundation decided to give out larger grants for up to $10,000 for collaborative projects in fall 2015. Two instructors were awarded $7,500 to purchase two drones in order to research California’s water resources.

The foundation’s grant program, formerly known as Mini-Grants, aims to “help faculty fill in gaps in their programs.”

“As the program grew, it became “seed” money for some departments who wanted to create new programs in their department but didn’t have initial funds to do so,” Kristin McPeak wrote in an email.

Photography instructor Christopher O’Leary and geography instructor Brennan Wallace were awarded the grant for their Department of Water project at the PCC Foundation Award Ceremony on Oct. 30 to fund the purchase of the drones.

“One thing they really look for is interdisciplinary projects, which is, I think, why we were successful,” said O’Leary. “The foundation is one the few really flexible institutions within PCC. It kind of tries to make magic happen that might not happen naturally.”

O’Leary and Wallace purchased an Inspire I Pro and a Phantom 3 drone with the grant and are eagerly awaiting their arrival. The Inspire 1 Pro features a professional camera and wireless HD video transmission, which means operators can see video in real time as they fly. The Phantom 3 is a smaller entry-level drone, which can record and live stream video and can take stills. Their vision is to use these drones for different projects within their respective classes, but also for inter-departmental collaborations.

“The Department of Water project stood out to us as something very ambitious, but also strategic and creative,” Kristin McPeak wrote.

The committee chairperson, Winston Uchiyama, said in an email that the application stood out to him because it involves “cutting-edge technology” and the fact that it is “truly interdisciplinary, crossing between the arts (photography), science (geography and geology), and English (writing).”

The instructors are both first-year faculty and met at a new faculty orientation in summer 2015. They teamed up after O’Leary started the grant application and together formed the Department of Water, which became the title of the grant application. Their goal is to collaborate between the departments and study water resources in California.

“[It is a] super relevant issue right now,” Wallace said. “You can approach water resources from so many different angles. From a photography perspective, but then as utilities, as storm water management, looking at El Nino, current climate, lawn growth or maintenance. We can look at green space all over California with the drones.”

O’Leary intends to use the drones in his Advanced Photography class for group projects and also to make them available for students to check out for individual projects. He further hopes to build a field study class around the drones in the future.

“The drones have a number of features that are useful to us. For us, the photographer, it’s aerial photography,” O’Leary said. “There are cameras built into the drones. They can turn 360 degrees and you can control that from the ground … It actually takes two people to do that. One person steers the drone and the other steers the camera. From the geography perspective there is global positioning that is built into these things. So you can do mapmaking.”

This is where Wallace the geographer comes in. He plans to integrate the drones into the Geospatial Technology Skills Certificate program. The program teaches students geospatial data entry, how to prepare maps using Geographic Information Systems (GIS), interpret aerial photographs and maintain GIS databases, according to the Pasadena City College 2015-2016 catalog.

“A big part of field studies is photography,” Wallace said.

He plans to take the drones onto field trips to places like Eaton Canyon, Los Angeles reservoirs or up to Big Sur, where he takes students on a four-day camping trip as part of a one-credit class during the summer semester, when students learn cartographic techniques to make maps. The drones will help them create aerial images at predetermined intervals, which will automatically be geotagged.

“On a purely technical level I think it is a really important new technology,” said O’Leary. “It’s going to change how we think about cities and landscapes. So I think it is really good to give students experience with that [technology] even if they may not make the most profound artwork.”

There are no concrete plans on how the departments will collaborate as the drones have not arrived yet, but there certainly is an exciting vision.

Traditionally, the different departments are not known for collaboration and interaction, a tradition these new faculty members would like to change.

“I think if schools could be organized around problems or ideas, we could be really productive and that could teach students how to solve problems as well,” O’Leary said. “And water is the best example of this. Literally all fields can contribute something about the idea of water. It has a cultural perspective, a scientific perspective, there’s a technological perspective, a societal perspective. And we might be able to add the chaotic aspect of being an artist … [and] dabble in each other’s worlds.”

During the grant application process O’Leary and Wallace recruited new hire Emily Fernandez from the English department for their interdisciplinary project and welcome others to join the collaboration.

“The English side is the synthesis of it all,” O’Leary said. “Geography will be making maps, photography will be making images and then English will write about it.”

Their initial idea was to create books about the project. However, the foundation did not approve the additional funds necessary for the book making. Now the plan is to create websites around it with each department contributing.

Their use will not be limited to the Photography, English and Geography departments. The idea is that other departments will also make use of them for future interdisciplinary projects.

Share Button

Leave a Reply