Landscape Architecture Alumnus Garners Attention for Use of Drones

File Jun 21, 11 54 06 AM

By using drones, Arneson gained different vantage points for his designs. Image courtesy of Eric Arneson.

No magical panacea can wipe out the challenges of a highly technical and creative field such as landscape architecture, but alumnus Eric Arneson’s work shows it’s possible to come close. By applying one tool throughout all phases of the design process, Arneson alleviated a wide range of complicating factors common in his field. Site access, digital image quality, data collection and audience engagement all benefited from this multifaceted problem-solver. Rather than some rare product, the key tool was an item likely to be found on the wish list of your gadget-obsessed friend. It was a drone.

Arneson, now an FAA-certified drone pilot, first explored the relationship between landscape architecture and drones in the Academy’s inaugural drone production class during the Spring 2016 semester. He was the lone landscape architecture major in the class, which drew mainly communications, motion picture, photography and journalism students. The course teaches students where, when and how to operate a drone safely—rapidly evolving subject matter, considering the pace of technology and regulations. 

“If you can use video and aerial photography to help tell a story, you can use a drone in your major,” said Academy instructor Patrick Egan, an expert on the commercial use of unmanned aircraft technology. “I think it could translate to more disciplines at the school.”  

Taking advantage of the interdisciplinary classwork available at the Academy, Arneson homed in on the potential uses of high-quality aerial site photographs. Drone images can assist with analysis, documentation and even marketing. Another application is drone-aided design, in which software such as DroneDeploy and Photoshop is used to manipulate aerial images into land surveys and renderings.


Academy of Art University alumnus Eric Arneson. Photo courtesy of Eric Arneson.

“They’re showstoppers,” Heather Clendenin, online director of the School of Landscape Architecture, said of Arneson’s renderings. “Visuals like these can involve people in the process and show the kind of vision landscape architects have. He is taking the profession into new realms, making it much more accessible.” 

Arneson’s final project for the drone production class reimagined a riverside industrial site in his hometown of Healdsburg, California, as a waterfront park. The project won him an honor award for general design in the 2016 American Society of Landscape Architects Student Awards.

It attracted notice from the unmanned aircraft industry, too. DroneDeploy highlighted Arneson’s work on the company blog. In addition, he was invited to speak at the 2017 Silicon Valley Drone Show in San Francisco in May, alongside experts from NASA, the Cinematographers Guild and Cisco. Arneson discussed the practical applications of drones in the landscape architecture field, such as before-and-after renderings, site surveys, 3-D site scanning, volumetric calculations and topography scans. 

These uses represent time—and money— saving strides for landscape architects, but the field occupies a niche segment of the unmanned aircraft community. “Landscape architecture is this little tiny thing that’s not really on their radar,” Arneson said. “It was probably interesting for them to hear me.” Arneson himself enjoyed hearing from a longtime surveyor who described capturing aerial photographs via airplane flyover before satellite imagery became available.

industrial perspective

Landscape rendering courtesy of Eric Arneson.

bench per render

Landscape rendering courtesy of Eric Arneson.

Social media has also helped propel Arneson’s career. At 28,000 followers strong, his Instagram account has generated connections with fellow designers and architects, as well as freelance work. For instance, AutoDesk hired Arneson to create a tutorial for their SketchBook Pro app, which is now live on the company website. 

Arneson secured his primary job through more traditional methods. Academy instructor Antonia Bava, who taught Arneson in two courses, offered him a role as a landscape designer at her eponymous firm. “Because it’s a small firm, I get to work with her one-on-one and learn the ins and outs of running a business at an early stage in my career,” Arneson said.

“I want to train the next generation. That’s why I teach. Now I can do it at a professional level,” Bava said. She picked a promising mentee. “He had a lot of initiative. He’s got a bit of MacGyver in him. He can always figure it out. He can teach himself.” 

Built on a foundation of training, talent and adaptability, Arneson’s career is just beginning. Already, he’s a star alumnus of the six-year-old School of Landscape Architecture. “He’s the epitome of the [Academy] student. He took advantage of the opportunities that were there, he persisted and he perfected,” said Clendenin. “He’s got this great artistic and spatial vision to share with the world, and the Academy allowed him to do that.”