Saving turtles also salvages senior year

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Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Daytona Beach, Florida, campus is within easy reach of the world’s most popular loggerhead turtle nesting sites along the state’s eastern shore. Not much was easy to reach in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, however, with shutdowns, social distancing, and travel off the table for many. Embry-Riddle moved classes online and shut down flight operations.

That left Andrés Larrota, a native of South America who moved to the United States nearly two decades ago, among many Embry-Riddle seniors in need of flight experience with graduation approaching fast.

Larrota has been aiming to become a professional pilot since his first encounter with aviation as a child, a six-hour red-eye flight from Colombia to New York that lit the spark.

“I did not sleep a single minute. I was just looking out the window to see what was going on and listen to all of the noises,” said Larrota, in a recent video chat.

That sleepless flight eventually led Larrota to Embry-Riddle, where he quickly earned his private pilot certificate and an instrument rating. Then, he discovered the school’s unmanned aviation offerings as a sophomore.

Larrota has a unique connection to unmanned aircraft systems: His father works in Colombia as a land surveyor and uses unmanned aircraft for photogrammetry and topography work. Larrota’s father gave the young pilot a DJI Phantom 4, and that proved to be enough to nudge him onto a new course studying UAS.

Larrota was lined up for a study-abroad trip to the Balkan Peninsula when the pandemic struck, planning to join a team of professors and fellow students on a project to survey archaeological sites with UAS, and develop urban air mobility concepts as well.

“That was going to be my first hands-on experience,” Larrota said. “When the coronavirus hit I was left with nothing.”

He was stuck in Florida with time on his hands and not much to do, until he remembered a conversation with professor John Robbins, and decided to follow up. Robbins is Embry-Riddle’s unmanned aircraft systems program coordinator, and he had an opening on a team of eight students being assembled for a turtle conservation mission to work alongside staff from Northrop Grumman and the Brevard Zoo. The collaborative effort, known as “Turtle Tech,” seeks to learn more about the types of turtles inhabiting Florida’s Space Coast, and their nesting patterns.

Turtles might not be suffering the

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