NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship: Developing drone-based Remote sensing methodologies for meteorological Observations in the Natural Environment (DRONE) Ref: 2634

About the award

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP).  The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus six Research Organisation partners:  British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Met Office, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory.  The partnership aims to provide a broad training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science.

Applications are now being accepted for 3 fully-funded studentships on projects that cover the breadth of earth and environmental sciences commencing September 2017. Studentships will provide funding for stipend and fees (currently £14,553 and £4,195 per annum respectively) a Research and Training Support Grant of £11,000 and a training budget of £4,000 for 42 months (3.5 years).  All projects will be CASE projects with input into project development from key end-user communities.

Location: Environment and Sustainability Institute, DroneLab, University of Exeter, Penryn Campus.

Academic Supervisors:

Dr Karen Anderson, University of Exeter

Prof Jim Hayward, University of Exeter

Dr Jamie Shutler, University of Exeter

Dr Justin Langridge, Met Office

Project Description:

Background: There is a long history of scientists using piloted aircraft to sample atmospheric constituents in the ‘boundary layer’, but flight restrictions, high operational costs and the relatively low agility of such aircraft makes comprehensive measurements difficult. The recent miniaturization of electronic components and the boom in lightweight, portable drones offers new opportunities to atmospheric scientists. Piloting agile drones within the boundary layer to retrieve high quality measurements describing atmospheric processes (e.g. turbulence, aerosol and gas concentrations, and basic meteorological parameters (T, RH, wind)) will deliver new understanding for improving models of energy exchange, aerosol modeling, climate modeling and weather forecasting. This project will synergize research across complementary research sectors exploiting the scientific expertise present in several research groups with international strength at Exeter and the UK Met Office, bringing lightweight drone technology to bear on critical questions about air quality.

Project Aims and Methods: In this unique and exciting PhD project, the student will collaborate with the ESI’s DroneLab facility, Met Office research groups and the atmospheric science group at Exeter. Drawing on expertise and infrastructure in Penryn (Met Office Camborne site; DroneLab) the research will focus initially on developing, testing and validating drone methodologies for in-situ boundary layer sampling. The Camborne atmospheric facility offers lidars, sun-photometers and radio-sonde launches and will provide excellent cross-calibration opportunities. One focus will be on measurements of atmospheric aerosols that are a good proxy for volcanic ash (in 2010, ash from the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull grounded the entire trans-Atlantic fleet at a cost of $5bn, so the research will have wide impact). Once initial testing is complete, and the drone-based sampling method is well validated, the PhD researcher will have opportunities to capture new data in challenging settings with greater validation effort involved (i.e. at greater heights at the permanently NOTAMed Met Office Cardington site and in conjunction with major international campaigns in Ascension Island and elsewhere (e.g. NERC funded CLARIFY project; LASIC measurement campaign)). The supervisory team is world-leading, and the research is at the cutting edge of a new interdisciplinary research field in drone-based atmospheric sampling.

Candidate: The project will suit a student with a first degree in the physical sciences, and ideally a masters degree in a related discipline (atmospheric science, meteorology, physics, environmental science). The successful applicant will have a strong desire to develop a range of different skills (field, lab and modelling) and to work in challenging field settings and within diverse interdisciplinary scientific groups.

Case Award description: The PhD is supported by a CASE award from the Met Office who have agreed to pay a stipend of £1000/year to a suitably qualified student with up to £1000/year for travel and subsistence for additional costs involved with travelling to the Met Office. Dr Justin Langridge (Manager of Aerosol Research, Observational Research, Met Office) will provide guidance and technical support (e.g. combined calibration procedures) on the use of in-situ optical particle counters.

Training: Through the DroneLab, the PhD candidate will receive training leading to acquisition of a CAA permission for aerial work. The student will benefit from being part of the CLES community on the Penryn Campus which has a diverse academic training programme throughout the year, and includes ‘Friday talks’ (PhD seminar series). The supervision group will support the candidate in getting their work published. The candidate will emerge with a strong background in the physical sciences including field, modelling and transferable skills. Previous PhD graduates from Anderson’s and Haywood’s teams have progressed to successful careers in academia and environmental consultancy.

References / Background reading list

Anderson, K. and Gaston, K.J., 2013. Lightweight unmanned aerial vehicles will revolutionize spatial ecology. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 11(3), pp.138-146.

Cunliffe, A.M., Anderson, K., DeBell, L. and Duffy, J.P., 2017. A UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA)-approved operations manual for safe deployment of lightweight drones in research. International Journal of Remote Sensing, 38(8-10), pp.2737-2744.

Cunliffe, A.M., Brazier, R.E. and Anderson, K., 2016. Ultra-fine grain landscape-scale quantification of dryland vegetation structure with drone-acquired structure-from-motion photogrammetry. Remote Sensing of Environment, 183, pp.129-143.

Johnson, B., Turnbull, K., Brown, P, Burgess, R., Dorsey, J., Baran, AJ, Webster, H., J.M. Haywood, J, Cotton, R., Ulanowski, Z., Hesse, E., Woolley, A and Rosenberg, P , In situ observations of volcanic ash clouds from the FAAM aircraft during the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, J. Geophys. Res., 117, D00U24, doi:10.1029/2011JD016760.

Newman, S., L. Clarisse, F. Marenco, S. Havemann, B. Johnson, K. Turnbull, J.M. Haywood. A case study of observations of volcanic ash from the Eyjafjallajökull eruption. Part 2: airborne and satellite radiative measurements, J Geophys Res., 117, D00U13, doi:10.1029/2011JD016780.

Turnbull, K., B. Johnson, F. Marenco, J.M. Haywood, A. Minikin, B. Weinzierl, H. Schlager, U. Schumann, S. Leadbetter and A. Woolley, A case study of observations of volcanic ash from the Eyjafjallajökull eruption. Part 1: in situ airborne observations, J Geophys. Res., Vol. 117, D00U12,doi:10.1029/2011JD016688, 2012.

Zuidema, P.,  J. Redemann, J.M. Haywood, R. Wood, S. Piketh, M. Hipondoka, P. Formenti, Smoke and Clouds above the Southeast Atlantic: Upcoming Field Campaigns Probe Absorbing Aerosol’s Impact on Climate, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, DOI:, 2016.

This award provides annual funding to cover UK/EU tuition fees and a tax-free stipend.  For students who pay UK/EU tuition fees the award will cover the tuition fees in full, plus at least £14,553 per year tax-free stipend. 

The studentship will be awarded on the basis of merit for 3.5 years of full-time study to commence in September 2017.

Entry requirements:

Studentships are open to UK resident students and applicants should have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK. Applicants with a Lower Second Class degree will be considered if they also have a Master’s degree. Applicants with a minimum Upper Second Class degree and significant relevant non-academic experience are encouraged to apply

If English is not your first language you will need to have achieved at least 6.5 in IELTS and no less than 6.0 in any section by the start of the project.  Alternative tests may be acceptable, see


Application deadline:25th June 2017
Duration of award:per year
Contact: CLES PGR Admin phone 01392 725150/

How to apply

Click here to apply

In the application process you will be asked to upload several documents.  Please note our preferred format is PDF, each file named with your surname and the name of the document, eg. “Smith – CV.pdf”, “Smith – Cover Letter.pdf”, “Smith – Transcript.pdf”. 

  • CV
  • Letter of application (outlining your academic interests, prior research experience and reasons for wishing to undertake the project).
  • Transcript(s) giving full details of subjects studied and grades/marks obtained (this should be an interim transcript if you are still studying)
  • If you are not a national of a majority English-speaking country you will need to submit evidence of your proficiency in English

You will be asked to name 2 referees as part of the application process however we will not contact these people until the shortlisting stage. Your referees should not be from the prospective supervisory team.

The closing date for applications is midnight on 25th June 2017.  Interviews will need to be held on the University of Exeter Penryn Campus before July 7th 2017.

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email or phone +44 (0)1392 725150/723706.  Project-specific queries should be directed to the main supervisor