Examining the Utility of Unmanned Vehicle Technology to Map Topography

Project ID: 4926
Principal Investigator: Douglas Clark
Research Topic: Water Resource Data Analysis
Funded Fiscal Years: 2012 and 2013
Keywords: unmanned aerial vehicles, unmanned aerial systems, synthetic aperture radar, grid, elevation, sediment

Research Question

What is the feasibility of using the Predator Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), Global Hawk UAVSAR, as well as USU (or other university) and Raven UAV platforms (and their Electric-Optical sensors) to map river sediment movement? What are the comparative strengths and weaknesses of each unmanned aerial system? When and under what conditions should Reclamation use one or more of these systems for mapping sediment movement?

Need and Benefit

UAV technologies have traditionally been deployed in support of military and intelligence operations, but are now increasingly being tested for their utility in supporting the optimal use of natural resources. For example, the USGS has used the UAV Raven to monitor bank erosion on the Missouri River and to count Sandhill Cranes in the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge. UAVSAR technology has been used to estimate biomass. Predator UAVs have used SAR technology to examine the structural stability of levees during a flood event on the Mississippi River. Reclamation gathers elevation data for many uses, including flood modeling, sediment transfer, and reservoir and stream monitoring. Satellite data sometimes are too crude for these uses and too infrequently gathered and are often hindered by poor weather conditions. LIDAR missions are costly and can be subject to long turnaround times for product delivery. On the other hand SAR deployed on a UAV platform is operational during cloudy and non-cloudy conditions. Smaller UAV aircraft can be readily deployed, often without runways and they are can enter areas that would be hazardous for piloted aircraft to enter. For these reasons, Reclamation should explore the utility of using UAVs to conduct is operations.

Contributing Partners

Contact the Principal Investigator for information about partners.

Research Products

Independent Peer Review

The following documents were reviewed by qualified Bureau of Reclamation employees. The findings were determined to be achieved using valid means.

Aerial Missions with Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems to Monitor Sediment Flow and Changing Topography Resulting from the Removal of Dams on the Elwha River (final, PDF, 1.9MB)
By Douglas Clark, Mr. Alan Bell, Jeff Sloan, Mr. Mark Bauer and Ms. Susan Goplen
Report completed on November 12, 2013

Substitution of the GoPro Hero2 camera offered considerably better mapping results than the standard camera mounted on the Raven A platform, but for best results we recommend that DOI invest in (a. a rotary type UAS with the capability to incorporate a professional grade digital single lens reflex camera and better flight planning/management software, and (b. a fixed wing UAS that has camera/optics and flight planning/management system better suited to photogrammetric applications.

Bureau of Reclamation Review

The following documents were reviewed by experts in fields relating to this project's study and findings. The results were determined to be achieved using valid means.

Using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (final, PDF, 211KB)
By Douglas Clark
Publication completed on September 30, 2013

This bulletin summarizes the research results and potential application to Reclamation's mission.

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Last Updated: 6/22/20