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Life Sciences Magazine

When Plans Don't Fly

“It’s game time. My job is the drone. I am supposed to map it, track it, and make sure that nothing goes wrong. We need this imagery data — it is 100 percent necessary. Our whole proposal and internship are based on the data that I am to collect.

I’ve got the hex key, and I can plug in the screens, put the drone up, and fly.

I bring out the GoPro with a mounting bracket to screw on to my drone, I grab the hex wrench that took us four hours to find on Molokai, and I stick it into my drone.

It is stripped. . . . The 1.5 mm hex wrench is stripped! We have already exhausted plans A, B, and C; it’s time for plan D.

— Kala’i Ellis

Kala'i Ellis, a senior majoring in biodiversity and conservation in the College of Life Sciences, experienced failure’s forward momentum firsthand.

Flying Out of Control

As the summer approached, Ellis was excited for his study abroad with a group of 20 other biology students from Brigham Young University. The pacific ecology program includes travel to multiple islands in the South Pacific and provides students with the opportunity to conduct their own research projects and collect data that couldn’t be gathered in a campus classroom setting. Working with Dr. Richard Gill, Department of Biology Chair for the College of Life Sciences, Ellis and a small group of students were going to study trends in mangrove (any type of shrub or tree with exposed supporting roots that grow in tidal estuaries) ecosystems— including tree height, water quality, salinity levels, and PH levels.

For many students, collecting aerial imagery of mangrove ecosystems was integral to their research. Their various projects required data obtained through a visual mapping process called structure from motion, which included the use of drones to make a 3D model of the ecosystem. Ellis and Gill had offered the use of their personal drones for the project and prepared all the specialized equipment for the data collection. They expected everything to go smoothly.

However, after arriving in Molokai, plans took a turn when Ellis first tried to attach the sensor bracket to his drone. The bracket screws were too short, and one of his 1.5 mm hex keys was missing. Without these tools, Ellis couldn’t attach the sensor bracket to the drone, resulting in no aerial data.


Gill and the other students jumped into action to find a replacement hex key. After four hours, they found a set, but they still lacked the correct screws. Luckily, new screws could be ordered, and Gill could use his personal drone to collect some data in the meantime. However, before new screws arrived, Gill’s drone was knocked off course while collecting data. It was blown into the mountains and lost, leaving the success of the aerial data research in Ellis’s hands. The original plan was to gather all aerial data in Molokai; however, with the various setbacks, data collection was going to happen in Western Samoa, the last stop on the trip. For Ellis, that meant it was game time.

When Ellis put the wrench into the bracket, it was apparent that yet again, plans weren’t going to fly. The hex key, which took four hours to find in Molokai, was stripped. There was nothing he or anyone on the team could do.

Ellis had a choice. He could let this failure define his project, or he could choose to move forward.

Flying Forward

What first appeared to be a complete failure became Ellis’s greatest triumph.

The students had to collect some type of data, which meant they needed to modify their existing projects or choose to focus on some-thing else. For Ellis, this was in his favor because he was able to pursue a project that more directly related to his interests. As a native Hawaiian, Ellis has a keen interest in indigenous cultures and practices and the preservation of indigenous knowledge.


“Indigenous knowledge . . . is unique to where [people are] from,” Ellis says. “It’s unique to the people because it’s been shaped by generations, by hundreds of years that the people had to live off of the land.”

Fishpond practices in Oahu are an example of this indigenous knowledge that has shaped generations in Hawaii. The fishponds are shallow areas of reef flat that are separated from the Pacific Ocean by a low lava rock wall built out from the shore. A variety of edible fish species are trapped, raised, and harvested in the ponds and contribute to feeding entire communities. Recently, action has been taken to preserve and restore these fishponds so they can continue to be a resource in modern Hawaiian communities.

Ellis reviewed prior research and academic literature about indigenous knowledge, specifically that of Hawaii, and how it enabled Hawaiians to sustain life despite little to no contact with the outside world. Ellis analyzed the preexisting data and provided a new perspective on specific practices that illustrate what native Hawaiians are doing on a scientific level.

Moving forward after disappointment and discouragement can be difficult, but it can also provide greater opportunities like it did for Ellis. Gill was impressed by the students who were relying upon the aerial data and the initiative they took to find solutions to finish their research projects: “The students that had intended to use the remotely sensed imagery were really flexible . . . they quickly regrouped and found another pathway forward. For some, they were able to use data already collected. For others, they transferred their approach from taking aerial imagery to collecting underwater video.”


However frustrating and disappointing this process of testing, trying, failing, and trying something new can be, it is a defining characteristic of research and fieldwork. It is important for students to learn that truth early on so they can gain the necessary skills to find future success.

“Students that learn to be resilient and dynamic have a critical character trait that will help them in both research and life,” Gill said. “Especially in ecology, field circumstances are very different from how you imagine it in the classroom or lab. Equipment fails, batteries discharge, rain comes—all of which require flexibility in approach or planning. It takes a creative mind to deal with the misadventures of research and still collect enough of the right type of data to address your research aims.”