Oklahoma State University researching Little Sahara sand dunes

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WAYNOKA, Okla. — Oklahoma State University researchers are making sure our state’s small piece of the desert is here to stay.

OSU’s Unmanned Systems Research Institute (USRI) is checking out the 1,600 hundred acre Little Sahara State Park near Waynoka, Oklahoma. While you normally see people enjoying the dunes on ATV’s and go-carts, the OSU team pulled out a drone.

They are conducting photogrammetry research on the migration of sand dunes. For those of us who are not scientists, that means they are tracking the movement of the sand dunes using drones.

The team began its research nearly four years ago using high-definition photogrammetry to build 3D models of the dunes.

“Due to the predominant south wind, the dunes are migrating northward,” said USRI Director Dr. Jamey Jacob. “While the migration of these particular dunes may, someday, impact areas surrounding the park, this research provides a proof of concept of technology and prediction method which we hope may be applied to similar locations around the world.”

OSU researchers are taking a project initially meant to monitor weather and atmosphere changes and apply that to measure dune movement.

Jacob said it’s just another example of how the USRI team and other aerospace researchers from across the OSU system are leading the way in public impact research and finding new ways to expand the potential of drone technology.

Whether it’s monitoring natural gas pipeline leaks, determining geological formation changes in different areas or determining the viability of using different unmanned aerial systems on other planets, the aerospace research being conducted at OSU continues to advance numerous fields.

“There are several projects that USRI is part of that may not be ‘typical’ applications for unmanned systems,” Jacob said. “However, we hope that being involved in those ‘unexpected’ areas will not only provide useful data and solutions, but could lead to technological advancement that will be beneficial in a multitude of other applications.”

Those kinds of research opportunities are what attracted Victoria Natalie, the engineering program director for USRI, to study at OSU. Apart from getting to build and operate high-powered drones and drive an OSU dune buggy and rally car across the sands of western Oklahoma, Natalie said they know they’re making a difference.

“USRI is poised at the start of an exciting expansion in industry,” Natalie said. “I’ve worked with over five different colleges outside of engineering, including agriculture, plant and soil sciences, geography, geology, architecture, and meteorology, honing autonomous technology to help make discoveries and developments in different types of research. I feel like we’re still barely scratching the surface... This technology is truly revolutionary and will affect many levels of people’s everyday lives as we move into the future.”