In the spring of 2015, JMU X-Labs offered the first undergraduate drones course in the Commonwealth of Virginia—a feat that put JMU on the map in ways never before imagined. What began as a pilot course has surged into multiple iterations of collaborative, multidisciplinary programs and events shared across the commonwealth.

Multidisciplinary teams of students from physics, engineering, computer science, industrial design, writing, and other areas of study analyze and tackle real problems using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Students modify drones to carry payloads including cameras and sensors and/or to develop sensors to interact with UAVs that can be used to answer questions and solve problems.

Modifications to drones require research into the pain points of clients, the electronics of UAVs and sensors, and the optimal “flight” patterns to collect the data required. By utilizing the latest sensor technology and rapid prototyping tools such as Arduino and 3D printers, classes explore how to leverage technology and create new products for a range of social and ecological problems.

Spring 2018
The Unmanned Systems for Virginia Project

Using unmanned systems to research, preserve and sustain our natural resources

This is the third JMU X-Labs class to focus on unmanned systems technology and our most ambitious yet. Along with UAV experts from Nova Labs, 70 students from nine majors and two universities (JMU and ODU) have partnered with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) and Blue Ridge PRISM. The partners provided eight pressing ecological problems and delegated them to interdisciplinary student teams to give them real-world experience using unmanned systems technology:

1. Tracking deer and elk – This student team is experimenting with drone-technology, thermal imaging and other machine learning devices to help survey populations and distinguish elk from white-tailed deer in southwest Virginia.

2. Surveying peregrine falcons – These students will use drones to survey peregrine falcons at cliff sites in southwest Virginia.

3. Surveying for invasive terrestrial plants – In partnership with the Blue Ridge PRISM, these students aim to protect biodiversity and recreational and economic resources by developing a drone that detects commonly disruptive plants.

4. Digitizing oyster reefs – Using augmented and virtual reality in conjunction with underwater drones, this team will generate digital models of oyster reefs in the Chesapeake Bay to help with restoration efforts.

5. Collecting grassland bird data – In collaboration with the SCBI, these students will use drone footage to locate and quantify grassland bird nest density within the Piedmont region of Virginia.

6. Collecting dung beetle data – This team will use drone technology to learn how dung beetles operate within pastures, as they help reduce parasites and greenhouse gases produced by livestock.

7. Tracking pregnant bears – The VDGIF has tasked this team with tracking the hibernation locations of pregnant bears that have been fitted with GPS collars.

8. Safely darting with drones – This team will work with the SCBI to determine how to safely dart and track animals with drones, which can help treat injured animals and track and protect endangered species.

Class Project Websites


JMU X-Labs is a member of the Unmanned Systems Association of Virginia (USAV).

Drone technology experts Fred Briggs and Bo Pollett Wernick teach students remotely from Nova Labs using Beam® robots and telepresence technology at JMU X-Labs. They provide invaluable support and knowledge to students throughout the semester and are a vital part of the faculty team.

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