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Visiting St Catherine’s Island with teachers and girls from Smith College to fly drones

by Kerry Wallace-Massone

St. Catherine’s Island is one of eight large barrier islands on the coast of the U.S. state of Georgia. The island is 16 km long and up to 5 km wide. It is owned by the Saint Catherine’s Island Foundation and is not open to the public. The research center is set up to promote sea turtle conservation. research and education.

What an amazing few days I spent on this island with undergraduate students from Smith College, Boston and their Professor, Professor Jon Caris, Director of Spatial Analysis Lab. Smith is among the largest women’s colleges in the United States, with students from 48 states and 68 countries. An independent, nondenominational college, it is strongly committed to the education of women.

The girls were flying a variety of DJI Phantoms on missions to map the habitat of sea turtles and tortoise burrows on the island. The girls also mapped a 16th Century mission site that was used to convert the local Guale Indian tribe, who were later mascaraed along with the missionaries. This site was lost to the history books until the rediscovery through remote-sensing in 1981.

The girls were very confident and competent users of both the UAV’s and the mapping software and most enthused about using them for conservation purposes.

Also part of the expedition was Jaynie Gaskin, MPH. Jaynie is the Executive Director of the Georgia Southern University Sea Turtle Program at St. Catherine’s Island and the Director of Wildlife Conservation with the KWF which unites UAV engineers, software technologists and sea turtle conservationists in order to develop advanced emerging technological solutions for common barriers to conservation activities. Jaynie had just completed building her own drone and was in the process of testing and flying it and has great hopes in the future for utilising the technology into her research.

I was very fortunate to meet David S. Smith. David has devoted himself full time to work as a conservationist, and has also serves as Chairman of the Board of St. Catherine’s Island Foundation . With his wife Jordan, he co-founded CAVU. David put on a cocktail welcome party at the BIG HOUSE to welcome the expedition and was able to provide many very interesting historical facts linked to the island, including stories about the signing of the US Declaration of Independence and the night when ex president Nixon slept in a haunted bedroom in the big house!

As part of this expedition, we slept in converted slave quarters made out of tabby. The slave trade existed for 100 years on the island, until the end of the Civil War.

The island itself was amazing. Armadillos abounded as did the local population of alligators which filled the ponds, rivers and salt marshes. There were endangered bird populations which were, in my opinion, quite safe in the trees above the alligator ponds. The island has a conservation program for Lemurs, 14 of which were sent to Australia Zoo last year. There were tracks across the island which we travelled all over on electric carts to get to the various sites and beaches.

Ultimately I have to say this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I was able to see UAV technology being used with girls to promote their interest in STEM fields of work whilst following their love of conservation and marine wildlife. The island itself was like stepping into Jurassic Park and more than once we joked we would not be surprised to see a T-Rex appear.

I could go on and on about what this place was like but ultimately I could not have found a better place to travel with girls to see them so totally engaged with emerging technologies in such a collaborative atmosphere in an extraordinary setting following their own paths.

None of this would have happened without Princess Aliyah Pandolfi, who runs KWF (Kashmir World Foundation) what an amazing woman! Aliyah’s ability to bring together people with a passion to use technologies, science, conservation to improve our world and make it a better place for all species and genders has inspired me to emulate her wonderful example.

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