Interview with David Schmale and Shane Ross, Virginia Tech Researchers on Microbe Research Using Drones and Fluorescent Dye

David Schmale and Shane Ross, Virginia Tech Researchers on Microbe Research Using Drones and Fluorescent Dye Interview

David Schmale & Shane Ross
Virginia Tech researchers

Our UAV Interview Series has been receiving great responses and every often we get to interview both startups and big shots in the UAV industry on our drone blog. David Schmale and Shane Ross will be joining us today in this exclusive interview.

They both are professors and Virginia Tech researchers who conducted several drone-based research successfully and won awards and featured in popular science magazines. They gracefully accepted our invitation to be part of this interview amid their busy schedule.

In this interview, we talk in-depth with Schmale and Ross on their research using fluorescent dye and drones to study microbes and about drones in general. This high-flying microbe research was featured in a special edition of Scientific American.

So, our interview questions will be mostly related to this research, and if you want to learn more about it, this is the only article you should be reading.

Alright enough with the introduction, let’s dive in to find out what they have to say!

Welcome Schmale and Ross, Introduce yourselves and your backdrops. How did you enter the drone market?

Schmale: I’m a full-time professor in the School of Environmental and Plant Sciences in Virginia Tech. I received a B.S. from the University of California (UC), Davis, as well as a Ph.D. from Cornell University.

My laboratory makes use of unmanned systems (drones, unmanned boats, and unmanned submarines) to research the hazardous agent’s transportation in the water and lower atmosphere.

Popular Science Magazine named me among 2013’s Brilliant Ten for my use of drones to track pathogens in air.

Ross: I’m a full-time professor in the Department of Ocean Engineering and Aerospace in Virginia Tech. I have a bachelor’s degree in physics and a Ph.D. in control and dynamical systems, both from Caltech (California Institute of Technology). I’ve done work in the aerospace industry, including work with NASA, for the past two decades.

My lab specializes in performing mathematical modeling, applications of nonlinear dynamics, visualization, simulation, and tests with applications in many different fields, which include dispersal in atmospheric and oceanic flows, aerodynamic gliding, and transport through the air-water interface.

I got started with drones after linking up with David (Dr. Schmale). We’ve worked together for the past decade, combining modeling and data science approaches with new data collection techniques that unmanned systems provide.

Explain your research with fluorescent dye and drones to examine microbes, what is it, and your group there.

We have a rich history of using drones to study microscopic life in the lower atmosphere. These drones are set up with special sampling tools to analyze and collect microorganisms in flight. Recently, we have expanded our work to examine the hazardous agent’s transportation in aquatic surroundings, some of which aerosolized and become airborne, using unmanned systems teams operating in the water and air.

Research Using Fluorescent Dye and Drone to Study Microbes

These experiments have used fluorescent dyes as surrogates for hazardous agents (e.g., oil, dangerous chemicals, or harmful algal blooms). Our robots have been tuned to track these surrogates using innovative sampling methods, such as our DrOne Water Sampling SystEm (DOWSE) to collect water samples from the surface.

What is microbe and how much effect do they hold on the entire ecosystem?

The air around us is crawling with microscopic life forms. Take a deep breath. You’ve just inhaled thousands of microorganisms, including viruses, bacteria, and fungi. These microorganisms are small enough that they can easily move through the air, often passively riding air currents, sometimes just a few millimeters away and sometimes crossing oceans.

Some of these microorganisms are pathogens and can cause diseases in plants, animals, and people. Others live in the clouds as invisible meteorologists, creating rain, snow, and hail. Still, others are professional surfers, riding atmospheric waves in search of new homes in new locations.

You stated your microbe study was highlighted in a special edition of Scientific American Magazine. Excellent! How did you achieve that!?

One of the editors of Scientific American had seen our paper in a journal called the Annual Review of Phytopathology and invited us to develop a feature article for the magazine. It was published in the December 2017 edition. Also, it was featured as one of the ‘Top 21 Wild Ideas in Science’, an exclusive collector’s edition that was released on July 2019.

What got you excited in studying the microbes transport in the water and air using unmanned vehicles initially?

Most people don’t think about microbes in the environment, because even though they’re ubiquitous, they are very tiny to spot with the naked eye. It’s fascinating that for many small living things, traveling at the whim of air or water currents is just a part of their life cycle.

Ross (Left) and Schmale (Right) Use Drones to Collect Airborne Microbes Samples

New tools and technology are required to analyze the transfer of these microorganisms. Unmanned systems in the air, in the water, and on land can help us fill that knowledge gap.

How your duo was able to monitor the acrobatic paths of microbes over the water and air. What were the obstacles concerning it and how you overcame it?

Using drones and mathematical models, we were the 1st to record the microorganisms transport together LCSs (atmospheric Lagrangian coherent structures) – dynamic boundaries in between air masses which shape atmospheric transportation over long ranges. Our preliminary translational work revealed that a particular strain of fungal plant pathogen gathered with UAVs likely moved to the Virginia state through LCSs. This landmark finding engendered fresh hypotheses regarding the LCSs role in the microorganisms mixing in the ecosystem, and how they form a sort of highway in the sky.

Together, we have applied the LCSs language to the transfer of fungi on the genus Fusarium – among the essential pathogenic fungi groups on the globe. Studies of Fusarium gathered with drones via multiple heights at the atmosphere indicated that a few of these fungi had traveled perhaps kilometer distances while different times. This cross-disciplinary job has turned the understanding of aerial biological invasions; Now LCSs are considered as an essential system through which microorganisms like Fusarium can exploit new territories, plus potential destinations and sources of these hazards can now be recognized by monitoring LCSs over space and time.

Microbe Research Graphical Demonstration

How would sum up the job you do with quadcopters - pleasure, business or both?

Both! We enjoy flying for work and fun. Schmale holds a Remote Pilot Certificate under Part 107.

Schmale and Ross Operating the Drone

What does your drone gear look? Have you ever before crashed a drone?

Check out our social media accounts on Instagram (@SchmaleLab) and on Twitter (@SchmaleLab and @RossDynamicsLab) for pictures of our drones in action.

How have people/customers reacted to your microbes study with drones?

We find that most people are excited to learn about how drones are being used for science. The public is often surprised to learn about what is in the air and water and how it has the potential to get around.

What do you wish to achieve in your drone project in the upcoming years?

Recently, our work has expanded to address the aerosolization and transport of harmful algal blooms (HABs) from freshwater sources. HABs, caused mostly by toxic cyanobacteria, naturally occur in freshwater systems. They may produce cyanotoxins that can affect the nervous and respiratory systems of domestic animals and humans. Little is known about the transport of HABs in the air and water. We are also interested in using drones and mathematical models to track the long-distance movement of pollen.

What tips do you have for others who need to start flying drones?

No Drone Zone Area Sign

Take the time to learn from an expert pilot. Fly safe. Know before you fly. Practice on a simulator. Keep the quadcopter in your line of sight. Don’t fly over people. If you are flying in a public place with people nearby, notify the police and let them know what you are doing and inform them of your qualifications.

What advancements in drone innovation are you enthusiastic about?

I am enthusiastic about better batteries and longer flight times. Quiet propellers. Improved communications. More reliable autonomy.

What have been a few particularly memorable drone events you have participated?

All our science campaigns. Each project has provided so many unique memories that we won’t soon forget! 🙂

Is there something else which we have not touched on you would love to share?

Virginia Tech is always recruiting drone pilots. Come to VT and invent the future through drone discoveries!

Check out Schmale and Ross on the web!

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Interview with David Schmale and Shane Ross

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