UVM PhD Lindsay Barbieri uses drones to study agricultural emissions and climate change. She shares tips for speaking to the public about drone science. Photo: Joshua Brown
September 7, 2016
"What are you doing?”
I work with drones (also known as UAS or UAV - unmanned aerial systems/vehicles) and this is a question I get a lot.
It is not typically asked in a forceful or suspicious manner, but I always have a momentary adrenaline rush when I see the curious bystander/no-nonsense groundskeeper/ wealthy nearby landowner look up, check out our drone, and start to walk over.
My climate research involves monitoring agricultural GHG emissions at numerous field sites. One site happens to be on a large, sprawling agricultural estate known for it’s petable baby animals, cheese tasting, beautiful views and great public programming. In other words, there are a lot of people.
After more than 20 drone flights at this site, I have never had a negative experience explaining my research thus far. And I have learned some good ways to engage uncertain onlookers - because let's face it, with this sort of fun-looking official activity, who could resist taking a closer look?
Before Drone Flying
This is a large farm. Even though I’ve already informed people of my ongoing research, I understand that not everyone who works there knows me or my work. Before I fly, I alert the field manager and the person who is in charge of the entry gate to let them know what I’ll be doing (on field monitoring and drone flying) where (both hay fields) and when (approximate timing). This is in addition to all other pre-mission communications and checks (like checking out the FAA's "Before you Fly" app).
Now, back to the moment: “…what are you doing??”
Five Steps for Talking to Strangers About Drones
1. Polite and friendly introduction (ignore their question for a moment)
“Hi there, I’m Lindsay Barbieri. I’m from the University of Vermont - I don’t think we’ve met before?”
This lets them know who I am, sets a friendly tone, and gives them a chance to introduce themselves - so I get to know more about who I’m talking with. Is this person just a curious farm tourist? Are they working for the farm in some capacity? Do they have a stake in what happens?
2. Address their question, but big picture style
“I’m a graduate student, and this is one of my field sites. I’m researching agriculture and climate, and on these fields we are specifically looking at greenhouse gas emissions and water quality indicators.”
Yes, they are staring at the drone in my hand / in flight / on the ground, but I always start with the bigger picture. This gives me a chance to gauge their reaction and interest level. Sometimes they seem genuinely interested in learning more, other times they continue staring at the drone. Either way, they now have a bit of framing so I am good to finally...
3. Address the drone
“One of the ways we’re monitoring greenhouse gas emissions on these fields is using this drone. This is a small professional mapping drone. It is taking images of the field so we can better monitor how agricultural practices are affecting our environment, especially with water runoff and greenhouse gas emissions.”
I do use the word drone, I think it is the most accessible. And by putting phrases in like “professional mapping” and “taking images / monitor agriculture” I’m highlighting the use of the drone for research. Then I take a moment and assess: are they still interested? Still uncertain? Either way, it’s a good time to...
4. Point out other monitoring
“Do you see the stakes in the field out there? With the yellow tape on top? Those are marking all the points that we measure greenhouse gas emissions on the field as well. We drag around some pretty expensive equipment (can you see that guy in the field dragging a sled?) to get really accurate readings on emissions in the field at the same time. We’re using the drone imagery and pairing it with our on-field measurements to understand these agricultural practices better. This is just one field, but we have two here on the farm that are using different management strategies, and we’re comparing those two fields.”
Okay! Now they have the whole story, and a lot of information to engage with if they are interested.
5. Listen! Let them talk, and answer specific questions. Usually they say things like:
In all seriousness, I have only had great experiences talking to all sorts of people about drones and my own drone research. I would like to believe that taking the time to explain my research in an open and friendly way helps to shed light on the positive environmental science that can come from drone based monitoring. At the very least, I can show them the fun we have throwing small robots into the air...
Lindsay Barbieri is a Gund Institute Graduate Fellow in UVM's Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources.
Blog post originally published by the Federation of Earth Science Information Partners.