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Using drones to improve neighborhoods

When Assistant Professor Amber Woodburn arrived at The Ohio State University Knowlton School of Architecture in fall 2016, she was assigned to teach City and Regional Planning 4110—Transportation and Land Use Planning.

Prof. Amber Woodburn (left) discusses the aerial surveys taken as part of her Transportation and Land Use Planning course.

She wanted to introduce her students to the concept of complete streets—safer thoroughfares that accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists in addition to vehicles. And she knew a variety of perspectives would be critical.

“A main learning objective was for students to evaluate Columbus streets and think about transforming them into complete streets, where we're making space for all modes of transportation and people of all abilities to move around comfortably and access the resources that they need to live their lives,” she said.

Capturing the pedestrian viewpoint is relatively easy, as students can walk and document neighborhoods firsthand. However to get a broad view of transportation patterns and spatial dynamics Woodburn decided a drone would be crucial.

“If you’re on the ground doing a field assessment with a clipboard survey or a tablet, you're recording what you see about the type, condition, comfort and character of the street,” she said. “But then when we do these aerial surveys from the top down it gives you a different perspective and a different type of information to influence your decision making.”

With the help of certified drone pilot Chris Strasbaugh, the Knowlton School's digital library archivist and curator, high-resolution images of 2.4 miles of 5th Avenue between Route 315 and I-71 were taken over multiple sessions to create a two-dimensional map of the corridor. This area was chosen because of the involvement of the Complete Streets Committee, a volunteer organization made up primarily of residents in the Italian Village, Weinland Park and Milo Grogan neighborhoods.

Though it has the ability to fly over four miles away from its pilot, the drone was always flown in a visual line of sight for safety purposes at a height of 250 feet.

Strasbaugh said that he faced a number of problems while taking the aerial photos. The drone was not able to be flown in the snow or in winds up to 15 mph. There was a need for cloud cover since too much sunlight would create shadows on the streets. And photos could only be taken in the winter and early spring so tree leaves wouldn’t obscure the street conditions, but problems arose when snow piled up.

Drone pilot Chris Strasbaugh discusses the high-resolution aerial imagery of the 5th Avenue corridor that he captured using the drone.

“It was really hard for Chris to find days that would be optimal weather because there's snow all over the ground,” Woodburn said. “You're not going to be able to see the sidewalks or the pavement markings. You're not going to get a sense for the streetscape when it's covered.”

Not only did the use of a drone help students fill in some of the gaps in their field assessments, it also helped them think about new ways to view and improve street conditions.

“The use of drones in the course has helped us provide more thorough and precise analysis to our community partners along 5th Avenue, and has challenged us to think about how emerging technologies can be incorporated into planning processes to improve how we plan for people,” said Sarah Lagpacan, a fourth-year city and regional planning major.

In addition to course lectures and group panel discussions, students shared their work and ideas for creative neighborhood interventions with community partners at an interactive event on April 3. Lagpacan said this wide breadth of experiences was crucial to her learning in the course.

“I enjoy the energy and critical thinking lens that Professor Woodburn brings to the course,” she said. “It's helpful in remembering how our work matters and in really thinking for ourselves.”

The ultimate goal of the project is to expand it to other neighborhoods in the Columbus area.

“This is a really great format for this spring class and as long as the community partners are interested in engaging in it, this is something I think would be continuously valuable to students every spring when they take this class,” she said.

by Zach Konno, College of Engineering student communications assistant