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New Career Has Winslow Flying High

Published: August 7, 2017

Scott Winslow (l) and Paul Laris.

Scott Winslow is flying high these days.

A 1986 CSULB graduate in geological sciences, for three decades he worked as an engineering geologist.

He returned to CSULB to earn a post-baccalaureate certificate in geographic information systems (GIS) in 2010 and a master’s in geography in 2014.

Today, he remains on campus–as an instructor.

“I was working as a teaching assistant in GIS classes when Dr. Paul Laris (geography department chair) asked if I was interested in teaching a course section,” said Winslow. “I did and I really liked it.”

That was much the impetus for the Huntington Beach resident deciding it was time for a career change, so he officially put his private sector work on hold in August 2016 and moved into the world of academia…a welcome change.

He said being at CSULB is very different from working in the private sector.

“I don’t know if it’s unique to this department, but there’s no negative energy here at all,” said Winslow, who in addition to teaching geography courses at CSULB, does so at other area colleges. “I go to faculty meetings and I never hear a negative word. Discussion is always on how to make good courses even better.”

Along with typical classroom responsibilities, he also keeps an eye to the sky by teaching students in the GIS master’s program who are interested in pursuing Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification as an Unoccupied Aerial Vehicle (UAV) pilot. UAVs are commonly known as drones.

“We don’t call them drones because the term has a bit of a negative connotation,” he said, noting the FAA refers to them as Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems.

Winslow follows the groundwork laid by CSULB’s Christopher Lee, the department’s tenured remote sensing professor. According to Winslow, it was Lee who initially introduced students to the utility of UAVs for the collection of custom high-resolution aerial imagery. Since that time, Lee and his students have used UAVs extensively for various research projects, most notably on the Pacific island of Rapa Nui (more commonly known as Easter Island) and the Hawaiian Islands.

“With the expansion of the department’s UAV program and the simultaneous tightening of FAA regulations governing their use, I was a logical fit to assist Dr. Lee with the management of our drone fleet. Ultimately it kind of fell on me to learn how to fly each of our UAVs, including our most sophisticated (and costly) fixed-wing unit,” said Winslow.

Last October, to gain experience, the two made a trip to a dry lakebed near Baker, Calif.

“You need to do this,” insisted Lee. So, there they were, really in the middle of nowhere, responsible for a $50,000 flying machine.

“I was really nervous because it’s very easy to fly the machine right into a side of a mountain,” said Winslow. “Fortunately, we had a big space to work in, and we did it successfully on the first attempt. It worked exactly as it was supposed to, completely autonomously after the initial programming. You don’t fly it, it flies itself!”

Still, there are limited safeguards in place. For example, if an UAV is in imminent trouble, it can respond to overriding commands such as, “Come home right now” or “land immediately wherever you’re at.” Otherwise, he noted, hands-on flying is not necessary (or even possible).

Besides being fun to fly, department UAVs have many purposeful applications, mainly through their ability to take pictures–lots of pictures–of specific study areas from an overhead vantage point.

Those many photos are then downloaded into a computer software program that produces an “image mosaic,” done by stitching all of the individual photographs together to create one seamless image that can be incorporated into many types of research projects.

“It’s quite remarkable,” said Winslow.

Like many things, the cost of UAVs has come down over the years. Instead of spending $50,000 as before, a newer, better UAV can now be acquired for about one-third of that amount. Obviously, that’s a huge difference.

“Besides the ability to fly, the most important aspect of a UAV is the camera,” said Winslow. “That’s really where much of the cost is.”

And while researchers can now do things they couldn’t have imagined just 10 years ago, technology’s speedy, and constant, evolution does create a dilemma of sorts.

“You buy equipment knowing within six months something better is likely going to come out,” said Winslow. “So it becomes a question of, ‘Do you sit tight and wait for something else to come out, or do you work with the current technology?’ Sometimes that’s a tough call.”

Some recent faculty/student training took place at Point Mugu State Park, a remote spot in the Santa Monica Mountains. A number of geography students are actively studying native plant communities at that location. In addition, a long-term project has recently begun on Catalina Island that will involve students who will acquire an extensive database of aerial imagery using the department’s UAV equipment.

“In the past, we’ve had access to satellite imagery and things like that, but the UAV imagery fills what we would call a resolution gap,” said Winslow. “You can zoom in and clearly see a single plant or rock and are able to get custom imagery of just the area you are interested in.”

Another great benefit is the ability to fly a UAV as often as you want, rather than waiting days for additional lower-resolution satellite images or paying someone to go up in an airplane and take pictures. That is a real advantage. The only constraints are getting the equipment to the location and weather conditions.

Where does Winslow see academic work with UAVs headed in the next 10 years?

“Better lightweight cameras are continually being developed and this means that parts of the spectrum that were once accessible only using satellite-based sensors may soon be accessed using cameras mounted to UAVs. This will allow us to not only look at things like vegetation stress, but perhaps we’ll also be able to differentiate plant species,” he said. “So, to be able to fly over a vegetated area and be able to pick out different species of trees, shrubs and grasses, well, that is really an exciting prospect.”