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Odd Jobs: Geospatial analyst - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Odd Jobs: Geospatial analyst

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BURLINGTON, Vt. -

"We're seeing these really unstable banks which probably caused the rock slide," Jarlath O'Neil-Dunne said.

A team of researchers and students at the University of Vermont are taking a closer look at last week's Amtrak train derailment in Northfield. VTrans needed their help. Within 60 minutes of arriving on the scene, the team used their drones to get nearly 300 photos into the hands of incident commanders on the ground. The images paint a critical picture of train positions and track conditions.

"See how it's skewed the shape of it?" O'Neil-Dunne said.

The team is now back at the lab analyzing the data under the direction of O'Neil-Dunne, a geospatial analyst and the university's lab director.

"I think people have this idea that drones are going to be used to spy on them, and so there's some real concerns there. But we shouldn't overlook the fact that drones have real potential to do good for us," O'Neil-Dunne said.

This Marine-turned-professor says that's especially true in the wake of natural disasters. Tropical Storm Irene is what really sparked his interest in drones. Back in 2011, the state was trying to survey the damage through satellite imagery. O'Neil-Dunne was tasked with collecting the intel, but says the information was taking up to 72 hours to come in-- too long when making potentially life-saving decisions.

"Drones really offer us a new capability to gather imagery, the locations we need, when we want to do it at a much more affordable cost," O'Neil-Dunne said.

UVM owns two unmanned drones. And they're not for the casual hobbyist.

"A system like this will run you about $50,000," O'Neil-Dunne said. "And people are always shocked because what they see is a flying piece of Styrofoam."

Super smart Styrofoam. O'Neil-Dunne teaches his students how to preprogram flights during which a digital camera will snap hundreds of still images. The photos are packed with mapping quality data that tie directly to points on the ground.

"I think it's just a lot of fun. Ever since I was an undergraduate, I was just amazed at the fact that we could gather all this information from up above," O'Neil-Dunne said.

This summer, we caught up with the team in Waterbury. They were comparing the mapping abilities of drones versus traditional survey equipment.

"We've seen some really good results," said Scott Hamshaw, a UVM graduate student.

The results are used for much more than disaster relief. The imagery is plugged into computers that stitch them into 3-D maps. The models help community leaders understand how much tree canopy they have to work with when planning green designs. Your property taxes are likely based on measurements from digital property parcel maps. And if you use your phone's GPS-- that's based on special mapping, too.

"This is a field where if you're not constantly learning or you're not constantly adapting, you're going to be left behind," O'Neil-Dunne said.

He says it's these young minds that keep him on his toes.

O'Neil-Dunne says the field of geospatial analysis is booming. His students have gone on to pursue careers with Google, Mapbox, NASA and leading drone companies, as well as with state and federal governmental agencies.

If you have an odd job or know someone who does, Jennifer wants to hear from you. Send an email to news@wcax.com.

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