The will of the drone

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In this blog post, I would like to explain further our work in Iceland and reflect on the experiences we are having regarding drone flying. There are two main archeological sites that we are surveying in this year’s expedition. One of them is close to the home we are staying in at Skálanes. It is both an archaeological site and a nature reserve/bird sanctuary. Our wonderful host Rundvig is the lead archeologist and is very interested in learning more about the place. We are hoping that our drone images will help her understand the area better. The second one is at Stöð, and it is an important archeological site for understanding the first settlement of Iceland.

DJI Phantom 4 Series drone that we are using to capture VLI imagery


This year, our mission is to take aerial images of as many areas of interest as possible that we were pointed to by our archeology friends. We are trying to take as many structured flights as possible, which means using external software to produce a flight plan. Flight plans are basic instructions for the drone, so it knows exactly what area it needs to cover without the pilot needing to fly it manually. We are using a new Android application for making flight plans called Pix4D Capture. This app lets us draw a rectangle in the world, and it sends the information of the flight plan based on that rectangle. We can choose the elevation of the flight plan, how fast the drone will fly, the overlap of the images, and the angle of the camera. We choose to use this app because our previous flight planning app was not compatible with drones other than the Phantom 3 series. We also wanted to use software that would be accessible to everyone.

Davit and Tamara flying a drone


Our experience of flying drones in Iceland has been full of ups and downs. The will of the drone is very unpredictable. Many things can upset it, such as high wind speed, not enough satellite coverage, or maybe an app running in the background on our phone. Because of this, we have learned always to expect the unexpected and to make the best that we got. The only issue is that bad weather and miss-behaving drone makes unfortunate drone pilots. However, over time we have become better at understanding the mysterious behaviors and what helps to make the drone act in the way that we want. Although, we will probably never fully understand the will of the drone.

Davit captured in NIR while trying to make a drone work in Stöð

Glasgow Students at the Skalanes Field Center

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At the Skalanes field center, we live with another team of researchers from the University of Glasgow. They are a group of 6 students who self-organized and funded the trip to Iceland, following the precedents of student researchers in previous years. Some projects they work on in Iceland include observing puffins, eider ducks, and foxes. The photos below include Avery, Abi, and Clara examining, recording, and photographing bone samples collected from various locations, including bird and fox feces. I will be interviewing some of the Glasgow students in the next couple of days to learn more about their work, so stay tuned! [Photos by Yujeong Lee]

Capturing Solar Eclipse in Skálanes

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Today June 10th was the day of the solar eclipse. The sky was so cloudy when we woke up around 8 a.m. that we thought we wouldn’t get to see the eclipse at all. Just when I had given up on the idea of photographing the sun, I heard Seth calling my name, “Yujeong, Yujeong, come see this outside!” And there it was, the sun slowly revealing itself as the clouds started clearing up around 9:30 a.m. Only the partial eclipse, not the annular eclipse, was visible in Iceland, and the maximum eclipse happened around 10:17 a.m. (although the sun was not visible during the time due to clouds).

Davit, Craig, Yujeong, and Seth watching & photographing the eclipse. Photo by Charlie Peck.
Camera gears, solar filters, eclipse SUNglasses. Photo by Yujeong Lee.

Seth came prepared with a set of eclipse sunglasses for the whole team to watch the eclipse. He also handed me two solar filters to cover my camera lens with. I am familiar with the solar filter that gives yellow-orange color to the sun, but it was my first time interacting with a white light solar filter. Seth also taught me today that I should set my camera focus to infinity to capture astronomical images. Although I am holding my camera in the photo above, I soon brought out a tripod for more stability. Here are some results of the shoot, and they are beautiful.

Solar eclipse as seen in Skálanes, Iceland. Photo by Yujeong Lee.
Solar eclipse as seen in Skálanes, Iceland. Photo by Yujeong Lee.

Besides the eclipse, Tamara and Davit had a mostly successful day flying the drone in two different locations (one in the roundhouse and another near the research center). Just before dinner, we tried going swimming on the beach, but we went to the wrong one where there were lots of birds poop ;- ) For dinner, Emmett and Beth (a student from Glasgow) made us pasta with fresh vegetables, not to mention the sourdough bread Emmett prepared & baked since yesterday! 🤯

Concentrated Tamara 🧃 Photo by Yujeong Lee.

Finally, in Skálanes

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Writing’s not really my forte, so I’ve been postponing writing a blogpost for quite a while now. I guess it’s the right time to introduce myself, the work I’m doing in Iceland, and some highlights from the past couple of days.

My name is Davit. I recently graduated from Earlham with a degree in Computer Science. I’ve been involved in Icelandic field science research since my junior year. Our plan to go to Iceland in 2020 failed miserably because of the global pandemic. We all waited patiently (or not) for one full year, and then a week ago we drove to Chicago, flew to New York and then to Keflavík. In reality, the trip was way more complicated and tiresome than I just made it sound; but arriving at Skálanes flushed away all the annoying details of getting here.

Me and Craig, working side by side. Photo by Yujeong Lee.

Wet, exhausted and frozen, we made the final 2 km hike on foot. As we walked, our path took us through a permanent tern colony, which is an important part of the preserve. At Skálanes we were greeted by our host – Olí who had already prepared a hot meal for us. He told us that the next day would be sunny – an Icelandic luxury that we had to take advantage of. Next morning, we got up early and started working on using our drones to survey areas of archeological interest.

The craft. Photo by Yujeong Lee.

A few details about how I’m involved in this research:

Most of the work that I did on campus involved refining the workflow of surveying to ensure that everything would go smoothly in Iceland. This included familiarizing myself with the drones and practicing flying them manually. I also built a web interface for the visualization of the near-infrared (NIR) images taken by the drones. I have been a sysadmin at Earlham for almost 3 years, so I was also helping in plumbing up different software and tools that the research depends on.

The last two days the clear weather has allowed us to fly the drones. We have tried to make the most out of it! After Charlie picked the first spot for us, Craig, Tamara and I went to the surveying site. We have been using a Phantom P4 drone with PixD4 software to make automated flights. By taking a good amount of photos from 50 meters of elevation we will be able to build 2D and 3D models of the terrain.

Waiting for the drone to finish the flight mission. Photo by Yujeong Lee.

Unfortunately, we had a bit of bad news too. Our only drone with NIR lenses is a bit jet lagged and is stubbornly refusing to calibrate its gimbal. Once it starts raining again (it won’t be long!) we will be forced to work inside. Then, we’ll have the chance to focus and solve the NIR issue. Meanwhile, we are using the ordinary lenses to harvest as much data as we can.

Today, we flew the drones at a spot where the terns are nesting. They’re beautiful birds, but they were not at all happy to see us doing science nearby. They made continual short ranged attacks by pecking us, and also engaged in long ranged bombing efforts as they dropped their biological weapons on our heads.

Drone in the sky, angry birds and poop on my jacket. Photo by Yujeong Lee.

Soil Sampling & Staying at a Cabin in Hofn

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After the very long day(?) of waiting in various airports, landing in Iceland, then immediately hiking for several hours to collect soil samples, I had almost forgotten what it means to feel tired, and our team lost track of time and day. And of course, Iceland’s never-setting sun wasn’t of much help. :- )

Remote shutter release after soil sampling at Sólheimajökull. Photo by Yujeong Lee.


Our first official temporary housing was at Höfn Cottages. The small cabin was equipped with a small kitchen/restroom area and a room tightly packed with bunk beds for four. The wooden beds were quite beautifully built into the cabin with the lower bunks wider than the top bunks. There was enough space for one person to move through in between the bunk beds but nothing more. The restroom had a toilet and a sink without hot water. The small kitchen area was packed with a small electric stovetop and a sink on the left and a round table with two chairs on the right. Laminated instructions and cabin rules on the wall informed us that 3 minutes of hot shower would cost 100 króna at the common shower facility. Tamara and I walked to the common shower late rainy evening and each successfully took 3 minute showers.

The cabin I stayed at along with 3 other people. Photo by Yujeong Lee.
Davit and his bubble. Photo by Yujeong Lee.


Charlie made us fabulous oatmeal for breakfast the next morning, and we were soon on our way to Kvíárjökull. Just like the first day of soil sampling, we split into 2 teams to go to different locations. Having photographed the team with Emmett, Seth, and Tamara already, I followed Charlie, Craig, and Davit this time. Walking on the endless mossy and dark soiled land, I thought I would encounter a battle in Narnia, then another moment I felt I was a character in a game of battle royale.

Emmett, Seth, and Tamara at a soil sampling site. Photo by Yujeong Lee


After collecting 2 sets of samples in the various locations Emmett had planned out for us, we finally reached the research center at Seyðisfjörður after 4 hours of driving!

Put your back into it

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We are in Iceland! It’s been an adventure getting here with speed bumps at almost every step. But, we are excited and already have two days of field science in our rear view mirror.

Emmett and Tamara in a giant valley created by the glacier Kvíarjökull

Friday, 6/4
Richmond, IN -> NYC

We met at EC at 4:00 AM to start our drive to Chicago. The (very generous) Doug Harms came with us so he could drive the Earlham van back to Richmond. Difficulties began during our first flight from O’hare to JFK. Weather grounded the flight in Buffalo, NY. By the time we got back in the air and landed in NYC we had missed our connection to Iceland. While Seth, Emmett and Craig went to find lodging for the night, Charlie, Tamara, Davit and Yujeong stayed at the airport to ensure we were got booked on the next possible flight.

Craig and Tamara showing off the NatGeo love. They’re funding our trip!

Saturday, 6/5
NYC -> Iceland

After waking in a very swanky Best Western, we confirmed our (rebooked) 8:30 PM flight to Iceland. We spent the day at the recently refurbished TWA hotel, which is connected. Played Carcassonne. Ate crepes. Would recommend.

Seth and Emmett chilling in the TWA Hotel. 1960s Swank.

Saturday evening we finally boarded our flight to Keflavik, the only international airport in Iceland. An uneventful flight left us arriving in the country at 6 AM local time.

Sunday, 6/6
KFK Airport –> Cabins in Höfn

Iceland has only recently started lifting Covid-19 travel restrictions. We each brought vaccination cards and recent negative test results. Then, after going through customs we each had (shockingly painful!) COVID tests. We were released with the personal responsibility to quarantine. Within 6 hours we had each received negative results and were free to move about the country.

During our quarantine we met up for a (socially distanced) breakfast with our friend Gummi
who lives in Reykjavik. Since we couldn’t enter stores or restaurants Gummi helpfully acquired delicious local food to sate our each grumbly tumbly.

Breakfast at Gummi’s

Fed and hopped up on coffee, we were ready to finally get on the road. In our fully packed rented van we took off for our first destination: Sólheimajökull (AKA Solo), a beautiful glacier that is among the easiest to access on the island. Undaunted by the rain and wind, we were ready to engage in some first class field science!

Emmett dwarfed by Sólheimajökull

The work at Solo is part of Emmett Smith’s research into the changing microbiome diversity of the region. The glacier has been receding for over a hundred years with the location of its leading edge being well documented over the years. Areas closer to the present location of glacier have been exposed to the air for less time than those further away. As such, they have had less time for moss, flowers, soil, etc to grow. On Sunday we took soil samples at about 10 locations. We will use the samples to meaure soil properties (pH, Nitrogen/Potassium levels, etc). Additionallty, we will sequence DNA at each site looking for particular signatures. (More details in the upcoming paper!) We have been returning to the same sites since 2014, investigating how the soil has changed through the intervening years.

At Solo: Tamara flies a drone while Emmett collects samples. Yujeong is taking photos for documentation.

The field work was cold and wet, but we knew we could do it! We put our backs into it! We piled back into the van and drove four more hours to Höfn where we had reserved two very tiny and very dry cabins. It was time for our first good night’s sleep since being in Richmond.

Monday, 6/7
Höfn -> Skálanes

It’s Seth’s mom’s birthday. Shoutout! Happy Birthday Mom! 🙂

Turns out these little tiny cabins don’t have everything! We all had to share one teeny-tiny-itsy-bitsy towel … not all at once. But still!

Loaded with oatmeal and more coffee it was time to return to the field. So, rainier, colder and windier than Sunday? But you know our motto: Don’t stop, get it, get it!

Seth, Emmett & Tamara at Kvíarjökull atop a giant moraine

So, we drove back along the ring road in the same direction we had just come (I know … but trust me, this itinerary makes sense). This time we were collecting samples near Kvíarjökull.
Another spectacular glacier, Kvíarjökull is a finger of ice splitting off of Vatnajökull (the second largest ice sheet in Europe). We split into two teams (as we had done on Sunday) to get to the sample site more quickly. This was our first year visiting this site, so it’s just the beginning of a much longer study! We braved the elements, collected soil from 12 sites and ran back into the van to strip off our soaking rain gear.

As I write this, we are headed toward Skálanes where our friend Olí is going to make us some delicious stew! (Oh my! We just saw our first reindeer!) It’s certainly been a rainy and tiring beginning to the trip, but Iceland is so beautiful, our spirits are quite high. Speaking of spirits, we’re about to stop at the local vínbúðin. (look it up …)

Team introductions: Tamara

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Hello! My name is Tamara Blagojevic, and I am an upcoming senior at Earlham College. I am a Computer Science major and a Data Science minor. I come from Belgrade, Serbia. My interest in Computer Science started when I got a scholarship to represent my country at an international high school in India. I am passionate about using computing for social good, and I am interested in the role technology can play in social progress.

What is my role in the Iceland Field Science Research? One of my main delegations is managing all the drones and surveying. Currently, we are using drones from three different manufacturers: DJI, Parrot, and Skydio. Our research must be as replicable as possible, and covering different types of drones gives us insight into how anyone can do this without access to what tools they have.

Before departure, we have been working on organizing all our gear and ensuring that we are documenting everything well. Drones are very moody, so it is essential to understand all possible issues that might come up while flying before the trip. We need to be ready to collect data as smoothly as possible when we reach Iceland.

Iceland here we come!

The Porta-Lyser (TM) And Other Wins

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Today Charlie and I had a few wins – seems like the 4th trip to Iceland is the charm. We’ve been continually working to streamline our DNA extraction procedures so they can be done reliably in a makeshift lab at Skalanes. Today we took another step toward creating that reality.

One of the major steps of extracting DNA from soils is to physically separate the DNA strands from soil particles. This is not as easy as it might seem. Many soils strongly attract DNA, and the specific soil type we are working with in Iceland, a Brown Andisol, is one of these strong DNA attractors. In order to separate the DNA from soil, we need to mix a bit of soil with specially-made beads. We also add a bit of powdered skim milk to help keep the DNA from re-binding to the soil particles once it unbinds. However, the mixing step, or “bead-beating,” is critical. It needs to be done using a special vortex adapter for 10-20 minutes. We have a small vortex in the lab at Skalanes, but we’re not sure if the adapter will fit it, or if it goes as fast as we need. Therefore, Charlie rigged up what we are calling the “Porta-Lyser.” Here is a video if it in action – looks like it works a treat.

Other wins for today – we were able to reduce our checked baggage quota by one; we have almost all of our gear ready to pack into the van (which means we get a late start tomorrow morning!); and we were able to score some great NatGeo t-shirts to wear while working in Iceland!

Tonight we will gather for some Gulzars and watch an Icelandic documentary at my house. Tomorrow we will finalize our checklists, print and laminate them so they are ready for the field, and pack up the van that will take us to Chicago early Friday morning for the first leg of our journey.

Building a 3D Model of Ta’an’s Egyptian Sarcophagus

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Did you know that the only two ancient Egyptian mummies in Indiana are located in Richmond? One is in Wayne County Historical Museum, and the other is right here at Earlham College as a part of the Joseph Moore Museum. We are excited to introduce you to an exciting project we had been working on, in cooperation with the Computer Science Department and the Joseph Moore Museum.

Charlie taking photo of the Egyptian sarcoph
Charlie takes photographs of the sarcophagus. Ann-Eliza is holding the white backdrop.

Despite the museum’s closure to the public since the pandemic, Joseph Moore Museum has been working to bring better and improved exhibitions to the public when it reopens. With an Indiana humanities grant, students in the Exhibit Design class redesigned the ancient Egypt exhibit. Over the winter break, the existing exhibit was demolished. For the first time in 10 years, the sarcophagus was taken out of the display case before the demolition and moved to a safe location.

As soon as the Spring semester started, Charlie, Craig, and Yujeong went down to the museum for a rare opportunity to digitize the sarcophagus. With the goal to build a 3-dimensional digital model of the sarcophagus, Charlie and Craig took about 180 overlapping photos of the sarcophagus from the top and its four sides using a basic digital SLR camera. We then used the open source 3D modeling software OpenDroneMap (ODM) to build a digital model of Ta’an’s sarcophagus.

Craig takes photographs of the sarcophagus from its side.

ODM, also known as OpenDroneMap, is a powerful tool for processing imagery into maps and 3D models, e.g. the Icelandic Field Studies program uses it as part of there multidisciplinary research group that collaborates with archeologists in Iceland to build open-source, open-hardware gear for near-Earth surveying. As one of its primary project recently funded by the National Geographic Society, the IFS group has been surveying several ancient Norse sites in Iceland to look for early settlement activity from subterranean features with tools like ODM.

Nic Arnold takes photographs at the Solheimajokull glacier in Iceland during a research trip in 2017.

The digitized 3D model of the sarcophagus can be viewed with MeshLab, and it encompasses an incredible amount of details. Viewers can take a close look at the paintings, textures, and even cracks on the sarcophagus. Furthermore, even after the sarcophagus decomposes past its preservation plan, we now have an accurate visual data of the artifact that future scholars can use to study and honor.

We’re on track for summer

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Discussions are ongoing about the viability of summer travel given the pandemic. However, as Charlie has blogged recently, we are “acting as if”. As such, we are trying to maintain our original calendar.

Lo and behold, we have:

Imagine a “You are here” arrow by Spring 1

Here’s the full breakdown of that schedule and our progress:

Our plan for the fall was to find and test alternative UAV’s. This proved prudent, as the federal government banned DJI craft late last year. We are happy with both the Parrot and the Skydio craft, for different reasons which we’ll undoubtedly cover here on this blog in the future.

December and January, which were effectively a long winter break for a subset of us, were dedicated to testing the craft, capturing initial video, and possibly beginning development. This was a success as well. Additionally we have begun spinning up a more sophisticated web presence for the stories we’re telling – changes we will be prepared to publish soon.

We’ve now started the calendar for the spring, term 1 of 2. We are moving into scaling up our operation of the craft and developing software to automate that work. It’s a tough problem but one we can solve in the time we have.

We’re optimistic about our ability to meet the moment. If the world continues to make progress on COVID-19, we should be in shape to have a successful research trip.

Cross-posted to craigearley.com

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