Keystone Edge story about the Flying Bison

The online journal, Keystone Edge, recently picked up the story of Nick Urban and the Flying Bison drone.  Published by Issue Media Group, the Keystone Edge

… tells the story of the new economy in Pennsylvania–a narrative of creative people and businesses, new development, cool places to live, and the best places to work and play. Each Thursday, the Web site and weekly online magazine presents original stories, video and photography to tell that story, from Pittsburgh to Philly.

An excerpt from the story is included below. Check out the full story here.

Innovation & Job News – Bucknell student’s remote-controlled plane captures imagery to aid creek restoration – THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 01, 2011

Remote-controlled cars and airplanes were a hobby of Nick Urban’s when he was a boy. That interest remained as he pursued a computer science degree atBucknell University, where he spent this summer building a remote-controlled plane that’s being used to map the landscape around a creek that runs through Bucknell’s campus and into the Susquehanna River. The plane, dubbed the “Flying Bison,” was built of foam, includes Geographic Information System technology and can navigate predetermined paths on autopilot. Digital still and video cameras were attached to the plane so it could capture images of the Miller Run Creek as it flew around the waterway.



Computer science major builds aerial drone for a bird’s-eye view of local stream

Bucknell communications recently published an article on the work that Nick Urban and the other GIS student assistants did this summer for the Miller Run Restoration project.  Excerpt below – click here to read the full article.

LEWISBURG, Pa. – As the son of an aircraft mechanic, Nick Urban learned a thing or two about planes.

The rising senior at Bucknell University started out putting together model airplanes when he was a child but later became more interested in the technology that makes them work.

This summer, Urban, a computer science major from New Jersey, has combined the two interests in a research project in which he is designing, building and flying a remote-controlled aerial drone. The so-called “Flying Bison,” outfitted with video and still cameras and GIS technology, is being used to capture high-resolution images of Miller Run Creek for an ongoing restoration of the waterway that runs through Lewisburg. The data also will be used to assess how well unmanned aerial vehicles monitor environmental change.

“Pretty much all the equipment you would find on a regular plane is squeezed onto this remote-control plane,” Urban said during a recent test flight at the Bucknell University Golf Course. “It has a manual takeoff and landing, but I flip a switch on the transmitter and it will fly itself and navigate on its own.”

Miller Run Restoration: The Details

Guest post by Michael Grasso, Environmental Studies ’13 and Dan Ladd, Middlebury College ’14

The G.I.S. team started the Miller Run Restoration Project at Abby Lane in and around an oat field adjacent to the driving range at the Bucknell golf course. We spent the majority of the first day becoming accustomed to the equipment. Some of us took continuous topographical measurements with the mobile RTK-OPUS GPS unit and the others used the theodolite Total Station to collect coordinate and elevation data at the culverts in the area. Culverts are concrete or corrugated steel structures jutting out of the ground where drainage pipes release water. There were 5 culverts in this first area we worked on. The water these culverts expel is polluted and travels at a high velocity which unnaturally increases the flow of the stream, disturbing the ecosystem. That problem will hopefully be alleviated (if not solved) by the creation of the wetlands at the culmination of the Restoration Project.

Actually using the equipment to get measurements is fairly simple. The aspect that we spent the most time learning was setting up the equipment and getting it ready to record data. On that first day it took us 30-45 minutes to set up the Total Station, but now it takes us only 5-10 minutes. To prepare the equipment, we first set up the theodolite tripod directly over a point marked with a nail in the ground. Then, using a bubble level, we adjust the tripod to make it as level as we can. When we put the theodolite on the tripod, we can achieve a more accurate measure by using a level that’s part of the theodolite. Once the equipment is as level as possible, we look through an eyepiece located on the theodolite which has a mirror that is angled directly at the ground with a cross hair in the view. We are able adjust the theodolite to position the cross hair at the middle of the nail. We are then ready to begin syncing the equipment. This process is time consuming because when we look through the eyepiece more often than not we cannot adjust the theodolite enough to get it directly over the nail, so we have to go back to step one and reposition and re-level the tripod.

After the first day of week one at Abby lane, we began the real work. That was the week of the heat wave when temperatures were 95+ everyday, so we agreed to meet at the geology building to get the equipment at 7am (an hour earlier than we usually meet) to try to beat the heat. The rest of the week was spent collecting elevation and coordinate data. After the second day we had taken all the continuous topographic measurements we could before the farmer harvests his crops, so we focused on taking cross sections of the stream. The stream bed was almost completely dry at this point, so we had two people collecting measurements and two up ahead looking for the stream bed and pushing the vegetation out of the way so it was easier to see. Thursday and Friday of that week the part of the stream we were collecting data from was in an area of very thick vegetation that towered over us. We were given machetes and sickles to clear a path along the stream bed so we could record data. Professor Duane Griffin pointed out certain plants we should avoid hacking because they were native and would be included in the vegetation that will be added to the wetlands. A large majority of the plants we cut down were Japanese knotweed–an invasive species that chokes out most other vegetation in the area. There were at least 3 different significant stream beds in this area, so we did a lot of hacking and searching.

Once we finished taking cross sections and stream profile points at Abby Lane, we moved across the driving range to the other side of Smoketown road and began collecting data in front of the Sunflower daycare building. It was much easier to get points there because there was little vegetation and flowing water. As we moved downstream towards the mods, however, the vegetation became much thicker than it was over by Abby Lane, so we contacted facilities and asked them to clear the brush. There were large areas covered with poison ivy so the school wanted to minimize the amount of contact between us and the vegetation. After facilities cleared paths for us, and if weather permitted, we collected continuous topographic and stream profile data, and took cross sections every 2-3 meters on Miller Run right in front of the mods.We also recorded dense continuous topographic data for the area between the mods and the stream (near where the solar panels are). This is an area of interest to the Miller Run restoration committee as this is a proposed area for a possible wetland.

Currently we are waiting for the farmer to harvest so we can finish collecting data by Abby Lane. Once we finish the data we collected will be combined and merged into a Digital Elevation Model (DEM) that can be used by Geologists, Geographers, Biologists and Environmental Scientists to figure out flow models, habitat zones and decide where to place wetlands.



Video footage from Flying Bison test run

On July 26th, Nick Urban and the summer 2011 GIS team conducted a test flight of the Flying Bison. See video to learn more about the Miller Run Restoration Project and to see footage captured by the drone during its flight.

Thanks to Lindsay Coffee and Erin Murphy for their work on shooting & editing the video footage.

video platform video management video solutions video player

Mapping Marcellus Shale Flowback Water Chemistry

Guest post by Darin Rockwell, Geography/Geology ’13

The Marcellus Shale natural gas extraction process is undergoing rapid development, which raises many environmental questions. This project studies the chemistry of flowback water[1]. High salinity levels, radioactive elements, and toxic trace metals are   found at very high concentrations in the flowback water. However, the concentrations of the measured parameters vary spatially. Professor Kirby and his students previously gathered data on flowback water and compiled the information into a spreadsheet.


My role in this project was to:

  1) compile additional data

  2) check all data for accuracy and missing information

  3) create maps that showed the spatial distribution of the selected parameters.


Project data includes well pad location, company name, permit numbers, date of drilling, and selected chemical parameter data from several sources. Sources include data from 26R forms[2] and a New York Times article. Data were transferred from Excel™ into ArcMap™. Data was narrowed down to only 90 day production data. 90 day production data is used due to the comparison of the 26R form analysis dates and spud dates[3]. The date differences seemed to mostly fall around 90 days. Latitude and longitude coordinates were retrieved from data on the Department of Environmental Protection website. For some data, coordinates were unavailable to retrieve. Therefore, I georeferenced[4] points using ArcGis in order to gain xy coordinates. Each parameter is mapped to its own extent in which data is available.

I experimented with various layouts to produce maps following good cartographic principles. Final maps include contour maps, which were calculated using Inverse Distance Weighted Interpolation[5], overlaid with graduated symbols[6] for values of nine parameters; Gross Alpha radiation, Gross Beta radiation, radium-226, radium-228, barium, strontium, sodium, and calcium.  A final poster, 26R forms, and a few  other sample maps are shown at the bottom of this blog post. It is important to note that the parameters are strictly from flowback water from the Marcellus Shale natural gas extraction process and the levels are not necessarily drinking water levels; the values are before treatment.   

Guest Post Darin Rockwell, Geology & Geography Bucknell ’13


[1] Flowback Water: Water that returns to the surface at the well head after fracking

[2] 26R forms: A form that each company is mandated to be sent to DEP annually that includes a chemical analysis of the residual waste produced at a site

 [3] Spud Dates: The start of drilling on a well

[4] Georeferenced: Defining spatial reference by location in terms of projections and coordinate systems

[5] Inverse Distance Weighted Interpolation: predicting unknown values using the known values at certain locations using arcGIS

[6] Graduated Symbols: A way to represent data that includes proportionate symbols according to break values in the data





Machetes, Wellies and 100 degree heat close out week 1 of Miller Run data collection

Dan Ladd, Geography (Middlebury College) ’14 and Max Stiss, Geography/Anthropology ’12,  weilded machetes and Wellingtons in an effort to collect detailed elevation data for the Miller Run restoration project. And did I mention the 100+ degree heat? Actually, the funniest part of this photo is that it was taken directly in front of the playground at Sunflower Day Care.  Wonder how the pre-school teachers explained this scene?

Week 1 – Miller Run data collection

If you’ve driven past the golf course this week you might have noticed some students traipsing around in the underbrush near the driving range and Sunflower day care.  The students are part of Bucknell’s GIS team and they have been collecting high resolution elevation data for the Miller Run restoration project. The students will be out there for another 2-3 weeks (+ or – a week depending on when the oat crop gets harvested – yes, really!). Here’s a short video to describe the work they’re doing. Thanks to Lindsay Coffee, a student video assistant, for taking the footage and producing the clip.


Day 1 – Leveling (and then re-leveling, and re-re-leveling, etc.)


Day 1:80K dollars worth of equipment in the field… but couldn’t start till we tracked down a $2.99 tape measure


Day 1: ‘WALL-E’ looking for ‘EVE’

Day 1: Mike holding ‘EVE’


Day 1:Darin with the GPS

Come watch the Flying Bison!

Come watch the Flying Bison capture high resolution aerial imagery of the Miller Run Creek watershed area. The flight is part of the work that the GIS Student assistants are doing this summer in support of the Miller Run Restoration project. Details and map below.

What: Come see the Flying Bison take off. Flight will last roughly 30 minutes. The Flying Bison drone will take off and land at the same location (see below)

When: Tuesday, July 26th at 10am

Where:  Tee box behind the new Bucknell Golf Course driving range building.  See map below (note that it does not show the new driving range building – underscoring the need for updated aerial images!):

Miller Run Restoration

In January of 2011, Bucknell received a 178K grant through PA DEP’s Growing Greener program to support the first phase of a project that will restore the Miller Run Creek (that runs through campus and the golf course) and provide flood relief to the surrounding areas.  Bucknell’s GIS Student Assistants are supporting the Miller Run Restoration project by collecting high resolution aerial imagery (using a drone) and elevation data (using an RTK survey system and high accuracy GPS).  We’ll post more about the project in the next few weeks, but for now here are a few pictures of Team Survey.

Nick Urban, Computer Science ’12 – designing, building and flying an aerial drone to capture high resolution imagery of the campus area

Max Stiss, Geography/Anthropology ’12 – collecting GPS data near Abbey Lane for the Miller Run Restoration Project

From L to R, clockwise: Mike Grasso, Environmental Studies ’13; Dan Dougherty, Geography/History ’12; Prof. Rob Jacob, Geology; Dan Dougherty, Geography/History ’12; Max Stiss,
Geography/Anthropology ’12 uploading GPS data after a day in the field

Training on the RTK System before heading out in the field:

Flying Bison

Nick Urban ’12, a GIS student assistant and Computer Science major, recently competed in  the 9th annual student Unmanned Air Systems (UAS) competition held at Webster Field in St. Inigoes, MD.  Hosted by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), the competition challenged students to “design, fabricate, and demonstrate a system capable of completing a specific and independent aerial operation.” In other words, the teams had to design, build and fly an aerial drone and compete against each other to incorporate specialized features like automated take-off and landing, auto-pilot flight, in-flight transmission of still and/or video imagery, etc. into their drone flights.  Although Bucknell had the smallest team by far (Nick Urban ’12, Computer Science and Dan Farrell ’12, Physics) and one of the smallest teams in the history of the competition – just two students as compared to upwards of 15 or 20 from other schools – the Flying Bison finished 15th out of 26 teams and earned a $1,000 award.

Earlier this spring, we joked about doing a fly-over (or blimp-over) of campus to collect high resolution imagery, but here we are a few months later doing exactly that thanks to Nick’s project.  During July and August,  Nick will be using the Flying Bison to collect aerial imagery and in-flight video footage of campus and surrounding areas. The data will be used for exploring the possible applications of a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) as a tool for monitoring environmental change.  The data will also be used in developing a restoration plan for the Miller Run creek that runs through campus.

Click here for more information on the UAS competition and Bucknell’s Flying Bison drone.