NAMPA — Every summer for the past four years, Northwest Nazarene University professor Dale Hamilton has worked with five to seven students to map burn areas across southwestern Idaho using drone technology.
But this summer, Hamilton and computer science students will take that technology a step further and use it to help archaeologists get a better look at Idaho’s history in the Boise Basin and throughout the Boise National Forest.
Hamilton’s work started four years ago. Funded through the NASA Idaho Space Grant Consortium, Hamilton and his students have traveled throughout southwestern Idaho to areas recently damaged by wildfires.
His crew typically arrives at a burn area the day after the flames have been subdued, he said. Trekking into the blackened landscape or just at the border of it, they fly their drones over the burnt wilderness — often hundreds of acres — and take a series of snapshots of the land.
Those snapshots are then stitched together into what’s called an orthomosaic, Hamilton said. This is basically a map of the landscape that officials can use to track the scope and pattern of a previous wildfire in a more efficient way than tracking on foot.
It’s a bit like Google Maps, except it’s a higher resolution picture because their drones fly lower to the ground. Hamilton said the highest level they’re allowed to fly their drones is 400 feet. This close to the Earth, the drones’ pictures capture details such as tree species and small man-made items on the ground.
Using drones is a much faster method for mapping wildfires, Hamilton said. He and his students typically have an orthomosaic map finished within one working day. It’s also more effective than any human can be, he said.
“Drones don’t get tired,” Hamilton said. “They don’t blink. They don’t get distracted.”
But Hamilton’s method of mapping isn’t just applicable to tracking wildfire patterns. Along with conducting fire mapping over the last four years, he said his students have also used the same method to examine prostate cancer biopsies, by mapping tissue to search for cancerous cells.
Senior Hanna Moxham is part of this research. She said while the equipment they use is different, the idea is the same — taking a series of snapshots to then stitch together and form a full picture that gives more information.
Starting next week, Hamilton and his students will work with archaeologists to map areas in the Boise Basin and other parts of the Boise National Forest that have over 150 years of mining history to examine. He said they received funding from Boise National Forest. Drone technology is appealing to this field, Hamilton said, because they can catch things archaeologists might miss.
Hamilton’s students participate in the summer work as part of a paid internship, Hamilton said. Senior Casey Lewis said he’s involved as a way to apply the knowledge he gained in his classes to real-life scenarios.
“I want to get experience here that will be what I want to do in life,” Lewis said.
Hamilton said he likes to challenge his students with real problems as much as possible because they find it more engaging and relevant. The summer internship gives students a taste of a popular and fast-growing field in computer science, and Hamilton said he rarely works with the same students more than one summer because they quickly land jobs after completing the internship.
“These students earn their spot in their field,” Hamilton said.