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March 9, 2016
Tracking Turtles via Drone

While many students returned from the semester break with stories of vacations taken or jobs worked, Boston College freshman Branick Weix had something unusual and inspiring to share: his weeklong trip to Costa Rica to help researchers track endangered sea turtles.

Through his company, SkyLink Productions, the Minnesota native partnered with the nonprofit group Seeds of Change and used an array of drones to help researchers study nesting turtles on a remote peninsula of the Central American country.

“It was amazing to know that I could help in a small way,” says Weix, a member of the Carroll School of Management Honors Program. “Hopefully, I can help more and figure out future solutions for them.”

Weix’s idea was to see how well a pre-programmed drone could help survey the population and nesting habits of those species.

On the first night, Weix attached an infrared camera system to a drone so researchers could follow the turtles as they came ashore to lay their eggs. That night brought some unexpected drama when a Leatherback turtle tried to lay eggs near the beach’s entrance, and too close to the high-tide line. Researchers jumped into action, with Weix and his camera capturing the drama.

“The high tide coming in the next day was most likely going to wash away the nest, so we moved it away from the high-tide line and away from poachers as well,” says Weix. “We were able to get the eggs, count them, dig another hole, put the eggs in, and then cover them up. It was remarkable to see something that weighs over a thousand pounds come up and lay 80 eggs.”

More drama came on the last day when dozens of tiny turtles from another nest began hatching, which once again prompted the researchers to lend a helping hand.

“The researchers put the turtles in buckets and then waited at night to release them into the water,” he explains. “Had we allowed them to make their way to the ocean during the day, the birds and other predators would have gotten them. So we were able to put them on the beach, release them, and watch them safely head to the water. It was a remarkable life experience to see 80 turtles crawling into the ocean.”

During the time in Costa Rica, Weix flew his drone over large swaths of beach, captured the images and converted them to usable data. The device was valuable in accessing hard-to-reach stretches of sand where turtles are known to nest: A beach that might take researchers a day to reach and survey took the drone just 14 minutes.

“There were two things researchers really liked,” says Weix. “One was the ability to go to the faraway beaches they don’t have access to so that they could verify their extrapolated data. The second was that we were able to build 3-D models of the beaches, and even though it didn’t work out great I think it was a good start.

“The researchers want to see how the beach dynamics of waves and tidal systems affect nesting over time. When you combine the model data with the nesting season of the turtles, it might help them understand more about the species.”

In fact, says Weix, the researchers were so enthusiastic about the drone technology that they talked about using it for other projects, such as studying crocodiles, migrating birds, rain forests and even active volcanoes in the area. “There’s tremendous application for drones and a lot of people know this.”

Weix first used a drone two years ago to help make marketing videos for the golf course where he worked. That led him to start SkyLink Productions, which produces marketing materials for realtors, schools and golf courses. A video Weix made for his sister’s school was seen by the head of Seeds of Change, and resulted in the invitation to Costa Rica.

His success with SkyLink got Weix hired at Spacecrafting Photography, the largest real estate photography company in the Midwest, for whom Weix is now developing an app.

He also started Demain Designs, the result of his helping a family friend with her businesses selling items online. His efforts helped that company generate $40,000 in sales last fall.

All three ventures are at the intersection of technology and business, which is what appeals to Weix.

“Throughout grade school, middle school and high school, I always had an interest in business and had seen businesses around me,” says Weix. “My dad started his own business and my grandfather did too. My dad is always coming up with crazy ideas for products and businesses, so I think I got a little bit of that from him. A few of my friends in high school and I started random little businesses. We’d always brainstorm ideas – text each other in the middle of the night – ‘What do you think of this or that?’”

Now he’s at BC, considering computer science, finance, or information systems as possible majors while taking in all that the Carroll School and the Shea Center for Entrepreneurship have to offer.

“I like the ideas where you can kind of build a business around a scalable technology. BC is a great place to see all those connections and be with other like-minded people that are interested in entrepreneurship.”

In the near-term, Weix expects to consult for the research team he worked with in Costa Rica and set them up with a permanent drone package to help with future projects. While it’s too early for him to speculate on his post-graduation plans, Weix says the demand in many industries for using drone-collected data in visual analysis might provide other opportunities.

“The next step that I would like to take is to overlay hard data – things that companies build massive databases on, such as specific locations, weights, and other metrics, and push it into a more visually appealing platform. So you’d look at one central platform where dozens of inputs come together allowing you to make more informed decisions. That would be the ultimate vision and goal in this.”

For now, Weix plans to enjoy his college years, as he reflects on how using his skills to serve others has led him to some impressive accomplishments.

“I’m definitely proud of it all. For me, I was taking things I was interested in and pushing them to their full potential, seeing how I could help other people. It’s what I like to do, it’s made learning a lot of fun at school – and it’s brought me many great experiences that I hope to continue.”

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