Assistant Professor Tim Goudge traveled with students from the GeoFORCE Texas outreach program to the Texas Coast this summer to teach them how to study coastal processes with the help of aerial drones. It was everything he hoped – the students were excited and loved the firsthand experience gathering and later processing data. And Goudge was able to introduce a new generation of budding geoscientists to modern field work.
But there were technical difficulties too. One of the iPads a student was using to help navigate a drone overheated, forcing them to land the vehicle by remote control with help from Goudge and graduate student Mariel Nelson. It was a bumpy ride but, luckily, nothing was broken.
The incident illustrates a growing reality in the field. Gone are the days when a rock hammer and a good pair of boots were enough for a student to learn the fundamentals of geosciences. Now, with big data and remote sensing in everyday use, students have to learn how to use a suite of technology in and out of the field.
And when you take equipment to the field, there’s always the chance it will break.
“You go in the field and stuff happens. A bird attacks your drone or a drone tips over and sand gets in parts where it shouldn’t,” Goudge said. “Stuff breaks and fails. It’s part of the research process.”
Fixing or replacing equipment can be an expensive proposition. The drone the GeoFORCE student was operating was not pricey, costing just a few hundred dollars. But the drone that Goudge and Nelson were operating is a much larger and a higher-tech version equipped with Lidar sensing equipment. It costs about $150,000, and it is one of the foundational pieces of equipment used by Goudge’s UT Planetary Surface Processes Group. If it goes down, everyone is set back until it’s fixed.
Making sure that the Jackson School community can access and maintain the equipment required for today’s geosciences research is exactly why Jackson School alumnus Albert Haertlein (B.S., 1978) started the Jackson School Haertlein Technology and Innovation Fund. He read about Goudge’s drone a few years back and wondered, “What happens if it breaks?”
As a longtime geologist and proud alumni, he wants Jackson School students to have the best education possible. Haertlein said that he knows that means buying the latest technology and keeping it in top shape, even in the face of harsh field conditions.
“Jackson School students need to be exposed to the latest and greatest,” he said. “That kind of education allows them to graduate and step right into a job and start working. It’ll make our students more attractive as potential hires.”
The Technology and Innovation Fund isn’t just for drones. It’s for any and all technology the school might need for education and research, which can cover the gamut. High-powered computing is a must for a modern geoscientist, as is specialized equipment for gathering data in a number of settings. For instance, geophysics students regularly take to the Gulf of Mexico with high-resolution sensing equipment. In past years, students built a sled capable of carrying a ground-penetrating radar system to study rock-covered glaciers in Alaska.
The resources provided by the fund help take pressure off the Jackson School’s main endowment, Haertlein said. That’s important, he said, because research equipment shouldn’t have to compete for the same funds as student field trips, staff salaries and building maintenance.
Professor Charlie Kerans applauds Haertlein’s effort. He has led countless groups to the field over the years and was one of the first professors to adopt drones for collecting data. Kerans remembers one incident – with a laugh – where a student tried to gently break the news that the drone she was piloting was now sinking to the bottom of the ocean. All part of the learning process, Kerans said.
“For geoscientists, being able to visualize in three dimensions, being able to image and use remote sensing technologies to do our research, it’s fundamental, and it’s an essential way to attract students into the area,” Kerans said.
Funding for innovative technology – both its acquisition and maintenance – has always been a major challenge, said Danny Stockli, chair of the Jackson School’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. Thanks to Haertlein and other supporters who contributed to the fund, that could change in the coming years.
“The ability for the administration to fund or leverage funding will allow Jackson School faculty and research scientists to keep up with rapidly evolving developments in cutting-edge technology critical to today’s geosciences,” he said. “Having access to designated resources for the purchase and upkeep of essential equipment is a tremendous benefit to the Jackson School community.”