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Regent Scholar award supports geospatial mining project, prepares Blugolds for cutting-edge field

| Judy Berthiaume

UW-Eau Claire is continuing to help Wisconsin establish itself as a leader in finding market niches for unmanned aerial systems, while at the same time giving Blugolds real-world experiences that will better prepare them to meet the growing demand for workers with geospatial skills.

This spring, UW-Eau Claire faculty and students will partner with private businesses to launch an innovative project that aims to help Wisconsin’s mining industry use UAS technologies to improve efficiencies and reduce costs.

The project specifically targets lowering overhead costs for volumetric analysis within Wisconsin’s industrial sand and aggregate mining industry using UAS technology, said Dr. Joseph Hupy, an associate professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and the project lead.

The initiative has earned Hupy a 2016 Regent Scholar award from the UW System Board of Regents' Research, Economic Development and Innovation Committee.

Hupy formally received the award, which includes a $50,000 stipend to support the research, on Feb. 4 in Madison.

Unmanned aerial systems, commonly referred to as drones, have the potential to solve geospatial problems in ways never before imagined. The rapid development of UAS is possible as technology mounted to the devices has become lighter, smaller and less expensive.

Interest in UAS has soared as their uses have been considered for everything from agriculture and forestry management, to insurance assessments, and search and rescue missions.

Hupy opted to focus his project on the mining industry because use of UAS in mining makes good economic sense given the industry’s need to constantly evaluate how much material is being removed from its sites, Hupy said. Current data-gathering systems within the industry can be inaccurate, costly, time-consuming and often dangerous, he said.

“The industrial sand and aggregate mining industry is a market where UAS has a high return on investment potential,” Hupy said. “With UAS technology, mining operations have the ability to get the high-quality data they need at a fraction of the cost compared to traditional collection methods.”

The newest project is possible because of the strong relationships Hupy and others at UW-Eau Claire have established with private businesses through the university’s Geographic Education Initiative, which is led by Dr. Christina Hupy, associate professor of geography.

Thanks to a three-year $418,869 grant from the Growth Agenda for Wisconsin Grants Program in June 2014 to support geospatial education, Hupy and his geography colleagues have been able to invest more time and resources into reaching out to industry leaders with an interest in geospatial technologies.

Geospatial refers to the technology used in global positioning systems, geographic information systems, computer cartography, remote sensing and field sensors that help in acquiring, storing, processing, analyzing and communicating information connected to a specific location.

The U.S. Department of Labor has listed geospatial technology and its use as one of 14 "high-growth, high-demand and economically vital sectors of the American economy" and estimates its growth rate to be almost 35 percent annually.

Helping Wisconsin establish itself as a leader in finding UAS market niches is important because the market value of UAS is only beginning to be realized, Hupy said.

“Many people still think of UAS as an RC vehicle that happens to have a video camera strapped to it,” Hupy said. “The mapping and analysis potential often lacks imagination beyond the agricultural market. While cinematography and agriculture have market value, using these devices with the right sensors and technology in conjunction with GIS and remote sensing technology means that the economic potential of this geospatial data collection tool is only beginning to get realized.”

In recent months, Hupy has worked closely with Menet Aero, a Milwaukee-based business that is among the first businesses in Wisconsin to get FAA approval to fly UAS for commercial purposes. Menet Aero now will play a significant role in Hupy’s new research project.

“In working with Menet Aero, we both noticed the demand in the mining industry for lowering the cost of the assessing inventory,” Hupy said. “While large mining operations may be permanent enough, and have the capital for piloted aerial flights or ground-based laser surveys, we noticed that the majority of mines were doing the surveys in a way that was expensive and time consuming.

“We knew that UAS would lower the time, but we wanted to improve the accuracy.”

Through separate conversations with leaders at Field of View, a North Dakota-based company that engineers and sells remote sensing solutions for agricultural and mapping industries, Hupy determined that establishing a workflow with this technology could help the mining industry. So Field of View also will be an integral part of Hupy’s project.

Through their project, researchers will equip UAS platforms with cameras and high-precision global positions systems that allow for construction of three-dimensional models using specialized software.

“While theoretical research has its place, applied research is needed within the UAS field right now,” Hupy said. “We live in a global economy, and the sooner that Wisconsin asserts itself as a region that can bring modern technology to market, the better of the world will be.

“Short of saying we are making the world a better place, we are definitely driving forward technology and lowering overhead costs in an economic sector that is a mainstay across the United States.”

Involving students in the research will ensure that they graduate with the kinds of knowledge and experiences they need to enter the workforce prepared to hit the ground running in a cutting-edge industry, Hupy said.

“Companies like Field of View and Menet Aero want to expand, but they need workers with the right skill set,” Hupy said. “They are going to look to an educated workforce coming out of programs like the one here at UWEC. They want graduates who possess the skills they need to take on this rapidly expanding market force.”

Thanks to the UW System Regent grant, two students will engage in intensive summer research related to the project with the mining industry.

One student will primarily engage in the field data collection with Menet Aero, and the other will be involved in the post processing and analysis.

The students’ work also will help shape UW-Eau Claire’s GIS curriculum, Hupy said.

“Beyond the two student researchers gaining valuable experience by working with cutting-edge technology and with two companies that are driving this market forward, they also are helping me develop teaching material that I will use in my geospatial field methods and unmanned aerial systems courses,” Hupy said, adding that his UAS course is unique in that it offers students the ability to approach UAS with a geospatial data perspective.

The latest project will add yet another applied component to that class, helping students see how they can bring added market value to what many would view as simply a series of images, he said.

“I’m really excited to build upon the GEI, and to work closely with Menet Aero and Field of View, companies that have a passion to harness the power of UAS beyond the traditional approaches in the current market,” Hupy said.

Hupy and his team already have started to work out details on a platform and sensor for the project. Field work will begin this spring when mining operations begin to evaluate their summer inventories, with data collection continuing through the summer.

While their work will focus on the sand and aggregate mining industry, Hupy expects that it will impact many other industries that also are reliant on geospatial technology.

“I’m confident this work easily migrates to larger mining operations and other economic niches such as construction, insurance and real estate,” Hupy said.

Partnering with private businesses on a project that will directly impact an industry that is important to Wisconsin’s economic growth is yet another way that UW-Eau Claire is building a geospatial technology program that is more comprehensive than anything that exists in the Midwest, Hupy said.

"Many places have pieces of what we do with our students but we're building something that brings it all together," Hupy said. "We offer global positioning, geospatial field methods, data management pieces, as well as the UAS, business geographics and LiDAR. We're offering students a whole package of classes so they can take away a more highly specialized set of skills. That's unique to this campus.

"And if you add in all the experiential learning — like the opportunities we are offering students through this project — then it's even more impressive. You bundle our GEI courses and programs with the internships, independent study, field work, networking and research that we do so well here and it makes an attractive program that you won't find anyplace else."

Current and future students are paying attention to the new opportunities available in this high-growth field. The number of geography majors is rising at UW-Eau Claire, and there is a growing number of non-geography majors taking geospatial courses, Hupy said.

"Students see this skill set as something that's desired by employers," Hupy said. "If they have it, they're more competitive in their job search."

Hupy’s award marks the second consecutive year a UW-Eau Claire faculty member has earned the Regent Scholar honor.

Dr. Jennifer Dahl's nanoparticles research earned her a 2015 Regent Scholar award. Dahl, an assistant professor of materials science, received the award for her project "Janus nanoparticles: A practical pathway toward functional materials for efficient photovoltaics, optical circuits and nanomedicine." The project has implications for advances in solar cell technology, optoelectronics and anti-cancer treatments.

The Regent Scholar program was created to provide summer funding support for faculty to engage in research and other scholarly activities while stimulating innovation and industry outreach at UW System campuses.

Top photo caption: Dr. Joseph Hupy, associate professor of geography at UW-Eau Claire and a 2016 Regent Scholar.