WSW: WMU Helps Commercial Drone Operators

Aug 12, 2019

A drone hovers during CES International in Las Vegas in 2016
Credit John Locher / AP Photo

Western Michigan University Assistant Geography Professor Adam Matthews says students may not know what a geographer does. But, he adds, “I’ve seen some students show up and they know about drones and that drones can be used for mapping.”


Western recently started a certificate program for operating unmanned aircraft, collecting the data, and creating images and maps using it. Now WMU’s W.E. Upjohn Center for the Study of Geographical Change is offering help to businesses and government agencies using drones. Matthews and WMU Geography Professor Jay Emerson launched the drone consulting service in the spring of 2019.

Emerson says the use of drones is becoming more widespread, especially in mapping by government agencies. He says it’s “almost a routine capability” at the county level and above. Matthews says drones can collect data that used to require piloted aircraft.

Extended interview in WMUK's WestSouthwest Podcast

Uses for drone images include an assessor checking housing for compliance with local zoning codes. Emerson says environmental firms could use drones to find a chemical spill or erosion. And he says law enforcement agencies may inspect accident sites with drones, while farmers can evaluate health of their crops. Matthews says parks and natural resources managers can evaluate the health of trees and look for invasive species using drones.

Emerson says “a couple of environmental consulting firms have started the conversation” about getting images for them. He says they are looking to expand and provide services to smaller governmental agencies that need the service. Emerson says local governments need images for updated maps of roads and homes ahead of the 2020 Census. But he says that can be an “onerous” task for small units of government.

Operating a drone commercially requires a license from the Federal Aviation Administration. Emerson says that includes students in Western’s drone certificate program. Matthews says they must know regulations and abide by them. He says they also must consider the ethics of using data collected by drones, including images of people who could be identified.

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