The Drone Thinking Initiative

Interterm 2018 Syllabus

Course Schedule: Tuesday, January 16 to Friday, January 19, 1:00  – 4:00 PM.

Locations: Spatial Analysis Lab (Sabin-Reed 104) and various outside locations

Instructors: Jon Caris, Director and Tracy Tien, Spatial Fellow

Contact:, (413) 585-3042

Office: Sabin-Reed 115

Class cap: 10 students

We will have no required textbooks; all articles and case studies will be posted on the course website and/or shared through Google Drive.

Course Description

This course will teach students to use and be inspired by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), more commonly known as drones. Over the course of four days, students will be taught the ins and outs of operating drones. Topics covered include drone safety and current policies, components, and how to take aerial photos and videos. The class will conclude with an aerial video project or a mapping mission requiring students to demonstrate their drone knowledge and skills. All equipment will be provided. After successful completion of this course, students will be certified to check out drones from the Spatial Analysis Lab and to help carry out research initiatives in related areas working alongside a certified remote pilot.

Course Objectives and Topics Covered
  • Relevant Laws and Regulations – Students will get an overview of the rules currently governing use of UAVs.  We will provide resources for understanding these policies as well as context about them.  We will also cover the latest draft of Smith’s own SAO (Small Airborne Object) Safety Code.
  • Current Applications of the Technology – We will present scenarios in which UAVs have been used for research within Smith, as well as other prospective applications of the technology.  We will discuss strengths, weaknesses, advantages, and limitations of the quadcopters and related programs we have used so far.
  • Flight Mechanics – Students will learn the basic flight-related terminology describing the actions of the drone while in mid-air, and the logic behind the parts of the vehicle that cause those actions to take place.  Pitch, roll, and yaw will be explained in context of a drone.
  • Piloting Skills – Students will have the opportunity to practice operating several different UAVs in controlled environments under the supervision of our two licensed operators.  Safety will be our main priority; but we also want students to enjoy and feel comfortable learning how to pilot high-quality small UAVs.
  • Mission Planning – Students will become familiar with apps such as Drone Deploy that are used as mission planning software for image collection.  They will learn the basics of plotting a path and determining the settings that the drone will use to fly its mission autonomously.
  • Photogrammetry and Image Processing – Students will learn how to convert images taken using a drone into larger composite orthomosaic images using stitching software.
  • Project-Based Inquiry – As part of this exploration of knowledge, students will have three small projects over the duration of the course.
  • Safety – As researchers ourselves, we want to emphasize safe, responsible applications of drone technology in fields where they can be cost-effective, time-saving, and non-invasive.  Students will learn how to think critically and responsibly about drone use as regulations are constantly changing and updating over time.
Tentative Assignments
Project One: Drone Selfie

During this project, students will demonstrate that they have learned the basics of flight operations, as well as taking photos. In pairs, students will practice flying and using the camera. The flight (and project) will end when the pair successfully takes a selfie (aka “dronie”) using the drone’s camera.

Project Two: Safety Guidelines and Flight Checklist

Flying drones is relatively straightforward (no pun intended) if you follow procedures according to software/hardware guidelines and operational steps developed through experience.  Safety is our first priority and we endeavor to make sure no is hurt in our course.  However, safety is best learned and remembered through experience.  As new users we ask you to develop your own safety guidelines.  Your safety guidelines will also inform the instructors as to which aspects of drone operation are most concerning to new users.

The second part of this project is closely related to your safety guidelines.  We ask you to develop your own flight checklist.  In other words, what are the ordered steps you take to lift, fly, and land your drone.  You may choose to combine both safety guidelines and flight checklist into one document.

Project Three: Mapping Mission or Video

The final project, time permitting, will combine the technical aspects of flying with imagery or video. In small groups, students will either make short videos using the footage that they took with their drone, or generate an orthomosaic map. The topic of the project will be left open to the students.  We will endeavor to have final project done by the end of the course.


Students are expected to be active listeners during regular class time, and are also expected to contribute to the class discussions. 

Late Submissions

An assignment is treated as a late submission if it is not ready for delivery on the due date. Late submissions will not be accepted. Should students experience extenuating circumstances which require late submissions, they should work directly with the instructor and their Class Dean to accommodate changing needs.

Honor Code

Throughout this course, it is expected that students will adhere to the Smith College Honor Code. It is a violation of the Honor Code to submit another’s work as one’s own or provide one’s work to another student for submission. That said, collaboration is strongly encouraged, and indeed, the goal of the course is to facilitate opportunities to work with fellow students and explore concepts learned in imaginative ways. Team project submissions must outline the role and contributions of each team member. If there are concerns about what is considered to be an Honor Code violation students must refer to the College guidelines and/or talk to the instructor. Any violation of the Honor Code is serious and will be presented to the Honor Board for their adjudication.

Disability Accommodation

Contact the Office of Disability Services in College Hall 104 or for any accommodations needed. We would appreciate it if this was done as soon as possible to ensure accommodations can be implemented in a timely fashion.

Note About Media

This course is a part of a larger initiative on campus to raise awareness of the possibilities of drones. Images and videos from this class may be used in publicity efforts. If you would like to opt out of having your media used, please contact Jon Caris.