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Drones: Tools for Exploring the Ocean or Beyond!
This series of investigations introduces the students to the idea of using a drone or the unmanned aerial vehicle (AUV) for doing research on the aquatic environment. A 10-slide power point introduces students to some of the modern uses for drones. This unit is not designed to teach students how to fly the drone. Instead, it has been designed to apply those skills in new ways. Some of the activities help the students think and learn as they use the drone or AUV as a tool and prepare them for using it as they plan to monitor something over time that they are interested in or that is changing in their local aquatic environment. Assessments focus on evaluating teamwork and problem-solving skills.
Essential Question(s)
How can we choose which technological tools (hardware and software) to use for specific tasks?
How could drones be used (or are they currently used) safely to efficiently collect environmental observations and data our local coastal or aquatic environment?
PDF Investigation
Time Required
8-10 60-min. sessions
Technology/ Engineering
Investigation Type
Field Trip, Classroom, Technology
Grade Level
Middle School
NGSS Performance Expectations
Materials Needed

PowerPoint: Introduction to Drones                             

Drones (1/group of students)

UAV with camera


String, shoelaces, or rubber bands

Set of metal washers, bolts, or other small weights

Small food or postal scale


Satellite image of your location


NGSS Performance Expectation

Students who demonstrate understanding can:

Define the criteria and constraints of a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that may limit possible solutions. (MS-ETS1-1)


Knowledge - Students will know that:
  • there are advantages and constraints on using a drone to collect environmental observations and data.
Skills - Students will be able to:
  • design a scientific investigation and collect scientific data about their local environment.
  • interpret, analyze, and communicate results based on sound scientific and mathematical reasoning.
  • to determine the appropriate use of drone technology.
  • to work as a team and solve problems.
Local and Cultural Connections
Many Alaskan communities have identified needs to collect environmental data to determine baselines and the rates of environmental changes being caused by rapid climate change along Alaska’s coastline and waterways (e.g., shoreline erosion, flooding during coastal storm surges, changes in water quality and/or salmon habitat, harmful algal bloom events, etc.) The use of drones can be a cost-effective method for students to collect data needed by the community.

Encourage students to talk to local experts, agency personnel, Elders, and other long-term local residents before deciding what to study, a study site, and their methods of data collection. Is there something related to the ocean or aquatic environment that is of concern to the community? Who can use the data the students collect? Is this issue something that could be monitored or studied safely and efficiently using a drone?

Projects designed to collect data and to measure climate-related environmental change that will affect the community can be extended into students engineering solutions and participating in forums about the community’s response. As part of the problem-solving process, invite an Alaska Native Elder or other cultural expert into your classroom to discuss environmental change over a longer time period or have students interview them. Alaska Native stories, cultural values, and histories reflect the knowledge and skills gained and passed down over generations of living in the same place for hundreds or thousands of years.
Teacher Preparation

This investigation depends on the acquisition or use of drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (AUVs). Some activities are geared to use of an AUV with a camera and to use of an AUV with enough power to carry a payload of environmental sensors.

Some drone models tried out by teachers and students that have been very successful are the DJI Phantom 4 and the DJI Mavic. These are both upper-end drones with cameras and capabilities to fly effortlessly and return when low on power. Drone performance is important, so the learning experience stays focused on the science, not just flying the drone. The OpenROV named the Trident is an underwater drone that could also be used to collect oceanographic data.

Investigation #2 requires trials to measure the distance the drone can fly, so you will need to use a field with marked distances, like a football or soccer field. 

Learning Experiences


(60 mins.)

1.  Brainstorm with your students about how they might use a tool like a drone to explore a place they want to explore or to study a fish or wildlife population in a place that is hard or expensive to access.
Ask: What type of place fits that description? 
        How would we design a study? 
        What do we want to do, how often do we need to check or monitor?

2.  The assignment to design a study using a drone will be the students’ final project, so this will get them thinking about the goal of their project.

3.  Ask students how they might utilize drones to study the ocean.Students might have some ideas; discuss what they are thinking about and then begin the PowerPoint.

4.  Take a break to look over the articles referenced in the PowerPoint and then look at the drones in the class at the end of the slideshow. You can take the drones out for a demonstration flight or have the students try them if they are easy to fly. An extension of this lesson could be to have the students to find images of drones on the internet and what they are used for and discuss this information as a class.


If students need more practice or review of the process of designing an investigation, they can read about a study done by a group of students in Whitter on a population of kittiwakes and discuss how the students approached studying this population of kittiwakes. (See Student Survey of a Wildlife Population and Kittiwake  Monitoring Study in the Resources section.) Kittiwakes and other seabirds spend most of the year in the open ocean, but nest on small rocky islands or cliffs during the summer. Why would you want to count all of the birds on the breeding colony every year? (to detect a change in the population or breeding success) What would be the advantages of using a drone to study a kittiwake population? (Boat travel is expensive and can be dangerous during bad weather; flying by in a plane would scare them off their nests. The drone could get close enough to snap an aerial photo for counting later but not too close to disturb the birds. The use of high-quality drone images has been shown to provide more precise counts than those of scientists counting from a boat or plane.)

Investigation #1: What payload can my drone carry?

(1-2 class sessions, 60 mins. each)


Can your drone carry one or more small sensors that measure environmental conditions such as temperature, air pressure, and location of these into flight? 

The Challenge:  Design and conduct an experiment to find a practical limit on the payload mass your UAV can carry into flight.


Trial 1

UAV only

Trial 2

UAV + Payload

Trial 3

UAV + Payload

Trial 4

UAV + Payload

Trial 5

UAV + Payload



Ability to launch (good, fair, poor, fail)


Ability to maneuver
(good, fair, poor, fail)


Payload mass


Think it through: What will you do to collect the information you need?

Questions to consider: Does the sample data table above include all the information I need? Are the terms “good, fair, poor, and fail” sufficient descriptions of my drone’s abilities? Would adding other terms or defining a quantitative scale be helpful?

Have you considered everything you need to take into account to make sure each trial is fair?

Questions to consider: What environmental or drone-based variables that could interfere with your tests. How much error could they introduce into your results? How could you accommodate for those variables so that each trial is a fair comparison of how much weight your drone can carry?

How many separate trials will it take for you to feel confident in your final answer?

Questions to consider: Is one successful trial enough to identify how much weight your drone can carry? Is there a minimum amount of time it has to fly to count? If your drone has the ability to take off with a certain weight, but it has difficulty maneuvering, what does that tell you about its practical weight limit?

Fly your drone to collect data.

Record data about each session and flight. Use your data to answer the question.

EXPLAIN: Present your results.

You may want to discuss answers to the Questions to Consider as part of your results.


Search the Internet to find sensors your drone is capable of carrying into flight. Describe experiments you could conduct with one or more sensors and what you could learn from them.

Investigation #2: How fast can my drone fly?

(1-2 class periods, 60 mins. each)


An afterschool group decided they wanted to make a snapshot of a specific tree on their campus every day. In order to figure out how much time it would take to fly out to the tree, get the picture, and fly back each day, they needed an estimate of the drone’s average forward speed.


The Challenge:  Design and conduct an experiment to find a practical maximum speed your UAV can fly. 


Trial 1

Trial 2

Trial 3

Trial 4

Trial 5





Average Speed


Think it through: What will you do to collect the information you need?

Questions to consider: How can I measure the drone’s average speed over a certain distance without including the time it takes to launch and get up to speed? What is the minimum distance the drone should cover in each trial to get an accurate estimate of its speed? 5 yards? 50 yards? What did you find was the perfect distance for testing the drone and why?

Have you considered everything you need to take into account to make sure each trial is fair?

Questions to consider: How can I make sure every trial is consistent? Are all spotters/timers following the exact same procedure? Are spotters’ results the same or close on each trial? What environmental or drone-based variables could interfere with your tests? How much error could those variables introduce into your results? How could you accommodate for those variables so that each trial is a fair comparison of how fast your drone can fly?

How many separate trials will it take for you to feel confident in your final answer?

Questions to consider: What are the practical limits of flying your drone as fast as it can go? At the maximum practical speed you identified, how long would it take for the drone to fly out of the effective range of its controller?

What kind of graphics, videos, and/or photographs would be best to help you document your results? Could you construct a diagram to make what you did so clear that another group could set up the same experiment?

Fly your drone to perform your experiment.

Record data about each session and flight. Use your data to answer the question.

EXPLAIN: Present your results.

You may want to discuss answers to the Questions to Consider as part of your results.

ELABORATE: Follow up

If the tree the group wanted to photograph was located 40 yards from the drone launch site, how much time would it take to get the photograph each day? What other factors should the group consider in estimating the time the daily experiment would take?

Investigation #3: Comparison of Images from Satellites to UAV-Collected Images


Explore the basic concepts of remote sensing by comparing data collected by instruments on polar-orbiting satellites with pictures and videos collected via cameras on recreational drones. Make a hypothesis about this data comparison, for example:

“The satellite image will cover a greater area than our drone” (YES, of course, but you get the idea.

Acquire a satellite image on the same day you plan to fly your drone. Identify as many features as possible (clouds, bodies of water, vegetation types, cities or towns etc…) (You can download SatCam, a free citizen science app for iOS devices, and free satellite images from MODIS Today via any web browser.)

  • Conduct a drone flight and collect camera pictures. Identify as many features as possible.
  • Organize your data. Here is an example of a table you could create:


Satellite Image

UAV Photo

 Data Source & time 
(temporal resolution)



Area Covered
(include units)



 Smallest feature
(spatial resolution) 



 Largest feature



State a conclusion based on your data.

Brainstorm additional projects you can do comparing drone data with satellite images, for example, green-up or green-down, identifying ice on near-by lakes, investigating fall foliage, etc.

Compile flight log, hypothesis, images, data chart, conclusion and any additional project pictures and results into a short report (or PowerPoint presentation) for a classroom presentation or science fair exhibit.  

Investigation #4. Collecting Environmental Data with Drones
To give students experience with how drones can be valuable for collecting scientific data, thereby support their inquiry skills as well as their knowledge of drones, knowledge of sensing instruments, and experience flying drones and collecting data from them.

Students will make predictions, justify their predictions, design a prediction ­testing study that involves flying a drone with a sensor. Then they will analyze their data to see if their predictions were correct and suggest a follow­up study.

Session 1: Prediction reasons (justification), and Investigation Planning

Session 2: At a minimum, one class period, though this phase could stretch out depending on the scope of the investigation

Session 3: Data analysis and follow­up suggestions


Ask: Did you ever wonder how much air changes with altitude? Does it always get colder or moister? Does the pressure always decrease? And, how much do these conditions change? Do the changes vary with the weather, or time of day, or season, with what's on the surface, or with the elevation

Explain that drones are great vehicles for collecting data to study these things.


Directions for students:

  1. Make a prediction. For example, "If I launch a drone on a flat grassy surface 20 feet above sea level at noon on the first day of every month for a whole year, I predict that there will always be a decrease in temperature going up 200 feet, but sometimes there will be a bigger difference between the surface temperature and the temperature at 200 feet than at other times.
  1. Explain your reasoning behind the prediction. For example, "I predict this because I know that air is thinner the higher you go and so is its retention of radiated heat at the surface."

  2. Choose a sensor. Make sure the sensor is designed to be capable of having its data uploaded to a computing device for analysis.

  3. Use Velcro or a string (tied with a strong knot) to attach the sensor to the drone.

  4. Decide how high you want to fly the drone.

  5. Make a table to record your data. Make one column for elevation and another for data readings from the sensor.

  6. Fly the drone, and note the data readings at equal intervals of change in elevation. For example, if you are flying your drone up to 200 feet, you could take a reading at a height slightly above ground level, then at 50 feet, 100 feet, 150 feet, and 200 feet.

  7. Once you have the data, determine if your prediction is correct and try to render a scientific explanation for the results.

  8. Present your data and explanation.

  9. Suggest what would be a good follow up study with the drone.

Students design a follow-up study, monitoring project or citizen science project using a drone. The goal is to use a drone as a tool to monitor something that is useful to study to add to the knowledge base of science and something that is useful in understanding or solving a problem in the local environment. Students need to consider constraints on the use of a drone in certain situations (e.g., proximity to airports or airstrips, the potential for disturbing wildlife or people in places they expect to have privacy or quiet) and compare the costs and benefits of using a drone versus other methods for collecting the data.

After students have designed and/or carried out their study, assess individual and team achievement in four areas:

    • Developing questions
    • Designing an investigation
    • Conducting an investigation
    • Communicating results

Assess teamwork and participation in individual and group discussion.

Introduction to Drones PowerPoint

Introduction to drone and their uses in collecting environmental data

Kittiwake Monitoring Project

Student project to monitor a seabird population

Student Survey of a Wildlife Population

Example of project-based learning 


App for IOS devices tocapture observations of sky and ground conditions at the same time that an Earth observation satellite is overhead.

MODIS TodaySource of free satellite images available via any web browser  
Teacher Background

This investigation was developed by Sheryl Sotelo for Chugach School District after the District purchased drones with funds provided by Alaska Sea Grant through their school grant program.  

It is important to remind the students that safety must be a focus of all activities so that no one gets hurt.

Prior Student Knowledge: Students should already have learned the skills to safely pilot the drone.  

Components of Next Generation Science Standards Addressed

Science & Engineering Practices

Asking Questions and Defining Problems

Define a design problem that can be solved through the development of an object, tool, process or system and includes multiple criteria and constraints, including scientific knowledge that may limit possible solutions. (MS-ETS1-1)

Disciplinary Core Ideas

ETS1.A:  Defining and Delimiting Engineering Problems

The more precisely a design task’s criteria and constraints can be defined, the more likely it is that the designed solution will be successful. Specification of constraints includes consideration of scientific principles and other relevant knowledge that is likely to limit possible solutions. (MS-ETS1-1)

Cross-Cutting Concepts

Connections to Engineering, Technology, and Applications of Science

Influence of Science, Engineering, and Technology on Society and the Natural World

The uses of technologies and any limitations on their use are driven by individual or societal needs, desires, and values; by the findings of scientific research; and by differences in such factors as climate, natural resources, and economic conditions.

All human activity draws on natural resources and has both short and long-term consequences, positive as well as negative, for the health of people and the natural environment. (MS-ETS1-1)

Common Core

WHST.6-8.8 - Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.
7.EE.B.3 - Solve multi-step real-life and mathematical problems posed with positive and negative rational numbers in any form (whole numbers, fractions, and decimals), using tools strategically. Apply properties of operations to calculate with numbers in any form; convert between forms as appropriate; assess the reasonableness of answers using mental computation and estimation strategies.

MP.2 - Reason abstractly and quantitatively.
Alaska Cultural Standards
B. Culturally-responsive educators use the local environment and community resources on a regular basis to link what they are teaching to the everyday lives of the students.
Educators who meet this standard:
B.1: Regularly engage students in appropriate projects and experiential learning activities in the surrounding environment.

B. Culturally-knowledgeable students are able to build on the knowledge and skills of the local cultural community as a foundation from which to achieve personal and academic success throughout life.
Students who meet this content standard should:
B.4. Identify appropriate forms of technology and anticipate the consequences of their use for improving the quality of life in the community.
Activities adapted from ones developed by the Education Committee of the Earth Science Information Partners Federation by Sheryl Sotelo for the Chugach School District. Adapted for Alaska Sea Grant by Marilyn Sigman.
Last Updated on
Last Updated by
Marilyn Sigman
Alaska Sea Grant University of Alaska Fairbanks Alaska Department of Education and Early Development NOAA