University of California
Informatics and GIS Program

Posts Tagged: IGIS

Mapping the Mojave Desert with Drones

Desert tortoise
As part of our mission to test drone technology and provide mapping services to the ANR community, IGIS recently completed data collection for our largest drone mapping project to date - 3600 acres of the Mojave Desert.

The drone data will be used to create fine resolution vegetation and elevation maps, as part of a desert tortoise research project led by Dr. Brian Todd in the Dept. of Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology at UC Davis. The study seeks to better understand how the threatened desert tortoise navigates in its landscape, which will help biologists and land managers responsible for protecting the desert tortoise make management decisions, such as where to place road fences that don't cut off important resources for this long-lived species. Researchers on this project track the tortoises with GPS and temperature sensors, which they will now be able to overlay on the highly detailed maps of the desert generated from the drone imagery.

How does the desert look to a tortoise?

Tortoise eye view of the Mojave desert
Orthomosaic of desert habitat from above
NDVI images show bare soil in red, chlorophyll in green
Elevation model created with photogrammetry

A Large Study Area

The study area is approximately 3600 acres, which is extremely large for a drone. We mapped the area in two trips in 2016 and 2017, with significant improvements to our mapping methods in between.

3DR Solo with a GoPro
In mid-2016, IGIS Academic Coordinator Sean Hogan mapped the first 1200 acres using a 3DR Solo drone flying a consumer grade GoPro camera. GoPro cameras work surprisingly well for making 3D topographic models, thanks to their high resolution, wide field of view, and rapid shutter rate. Hogan programmed the drone to fly a lawnmower pattern with a lot of overlap between images, so every point on the ground is captured in multiple images taken from different angles. The stitching software uses photogrammetric algorithms to recreate the surface geometry, producing a 3D model of the topography.

The Solo+GoPro combo worked well, but the flight time of the Solo, its mediocre GPS receiver, and the lack of an integrated GPS module in the GoPro were limiting factors that required more time for both flying and processing the data.

New Drone Platform for 2017

The DJI Matrice 100 mounted with a ZenMuse X3 (right) and Parrot Sequoia (left) cameras
In May 2017, Hogan returned to the Mojave with IGIS Academic Coordinator Andy Lyons, as well as new equipment and almost a year's worth of additional flight experience. For this campaign we flew our new DJI Matrice 100; a larger drone that can carry two batteries for longer flight times. Hogan also modified the bottom of the Matrice, outfitting it with an additional camera mount, so we were able to fly with a high quality RGB camera as well as the Parrot Sequoia multispectral camera. The combination worked brilliantly, allowing us to capture both high quality RGB images for the 3D surface model, as well as multispectral images for vegetation analysis during each flight. After a day of working out kinks with the cameras and software, we were able to reliably fly eight 100-acre flights per day with minimal downtime between each consecutive mission. Flying at 400 feet, the resolution of the resulting maps will be about 2.25 inches for the RGB orthomosaic and digital elevation model (DEM), and about 4.5 inches for the multispectral products.

Hogan brings the drone in for a landing

Lessons Learned

Some lessons learned for mapping large areas include:

  • Mapping large areas with a quadcopter is viable with careful planning
  • The Matrice 100 is large enough has enough power to fly 100 acre flights with two cameras on board with two batteries and calm winds
  • Heat can dramatically reduce flight time because the air is thinner and equipment less efficient
  • Checking your data in the field and having backup plans for weather and equipment glitches are essential
  • Having two or more people on the flight crew helps tremendously
  • Developing individual mission plans before going to the field reduces time between flights and hence illumination differences between adjacent areas
  • The dessert tortoise is a charismatic creature with amazing adaptations, and a great curiosity about the research equipment we were setting up alongside the road:

A curious tortoise with a GPS tag comes to check out the drone

Posted on Monday, May 15, 2017 at 8:41 AM
Tags: desert tortoise (1), drones (5), IGIS (44), Matrice 100 (1), Mojave (1)

AmericaView and Capitol Hill Visits

I was honored last week to be a presenter at the AmericaView Winter Business Meeting, in Reston Virginia, as representative of the CaliforniaView section of this nationwide consortium of remote sensing scientists.  AmericaView shares many of the same interests as the IGIS program, such as applied remote sensing research, outreach, education, workforce development and technology transfer.  At this particular meeting of over 50 remote sensing experts, I spoke about some of the ways that the University of California is using drones to advance environmental and agricultural research; including the use of automated photogrammetry for elevation modeling, thermal imagery for water use efficiency, multispectral cameras for monitoring post-fire vegetation recovery, Lidar for tree structure modeling, and hyperspectral scanners for invasive pest detection.

While my presentation and participation at the AmericaView meeting went very well, the highlight of my trip was being invited to Capitol Hill to meet with California Congressman Ami Bera, and staffers for Senator Diane Feinstein and Congressman Paul Cook.  The objective of these meetings was to advance awareness for the importance of remote sensing resources, such as the USGS's provision of data from the Landsat satellite missions.  In particular, our meeting with Dr. Ami Bera went fantastic.  He is such a great and knowledgeable supporter of the scientific outreach we at the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources undertake, and understands the importance supporting the scientific infrastructure that many of us rely on for our research and educational efforts.

Left to right – Pia Van Benthem, Dr. Ami Bera, myself, and Dr. Susan Ustin

Posted on Monday, April 10, 2017 at 5:17 PM
Tags: AmericaView (1), IGIS (44), remote sensing (1), Washington DC (1)

ANR welcomes its most recent FAA certified drone pilots: The entire IGIS Team!

March was busy month for the IGIS team. We started out with only one member of our group (Sean Hogan) being a FAA certified drone pilot, and ended the month with the rest of the team - Maggi, Shane, Robert, and Andy - having also obtained their FAA Remote Pilot License with sUAS Rating.

A FAA remote pilot license is required to fly drones legally for any non-recreational purpose (which includes basically everything we use drones for in ANR and UC). The 'hard' part of obtaining your drone pilot certificate is passing a 60 question FAA Airman General Knowledge exam, which covers a broad range of topics related to the safe and legal operation of drones in the national airspace. Our efforts to get certified were propelled forward by an excellent FAA exam prep-class offered in early March by UC Merced Extension, and taught by Andreas Anderson, a long-term pilot and graduate of the UC Merced MESA lab.

Our programmatic goal in getting more certified drone pilots is to help serve the growing demand for drone services in the Division, including both flying missions and training. Flying safely and legally however is only the start. Using drones effectively as data collection platforms for research and extension takes a host of other skills and knowledge, including mission planning, flight operations, using the equipment, data management, and select principles of photogrammetry and remote sensing. This is why we encourage everyone in ANR interested in using UAVs for their research or extension programs to attend one of our Drone workshops, such as the upcoming workshops at Kearney REC (April 13-14), UC Berkeley (Apr 2 ), Quincy (June 7-8), or our three-day Dronecamp at the end of July (application deadline April 15, 2017). Need some inspiration how drones might be useful in your work? Check out the current issue of Cal Ag which features a number of applications of drone science for agriculture and natural resources.

Posted on Wednesday, March 29, 2017 at 1:15 PM
Tags: drones (5), FAA (1), IGIS (44), Part 107 (1), UAVs (2)

IGIS to hold three-day drone bootcamp in July 2017

IGIS is pleased to announce a three-day "Dronecamp" to be held July 25-27, 2017, in Davis. This bootcamp style workshop will provide "A to Z" training in using drones for research and resource management, including photogrammetry and remote sensing, safety and regulations, mission planning, flight operations (including 1/2 day of hands-on practice), data processing, analysis, and visualization. The workshop content will help participants prepare for the FAA Part 107 Remote Pilot exam. Participants will also hear about the latest technology and trends from researchers and industry representatives.

DREC drone-wrkshp 600x450

Dronecamp builds upon a series of workshops that have been developed by IGIS and Sean Hogan starting in 2016. Through these workshops and our experiences with drone research, we've learned that the ability to use mid-range drones as scientifically robust data collection platforms requires a proficiency in a diverse set of skills and knowledge that exceeds what can be covered in a traditional workshop. Dronecamp aims to cover all the bases, helping participants make a great leap forward in their own drone programs.

Dronecamp is open to all but will have a focus on applications in agriculture and natural resources. No experience is necessary. We expect interest to exceed the number of seats, so all interested participants must fill in an application before they can register. Applications are due on April 15, 2017. For further information, please visit


Posted on Wednesday, March 1, 2017 at 4:04 PM
Tags: dronecamp (1), IGIS (44), UAS (2)

Drone Technology Workshop at Desert Research Extension Center Crosses Borders

Earlier this month, IGIS held another two-day workshop on using drones for agriculture and land management. As with previous workshops, the material included drone technology, safety and regulations, principles of remote sensing, mission planning, flight operations, and data analysis. Although the winds were too strong on the first day to fly, we couldn't have asked for nicer weather the second day and everyone got to try to their hand at the flight controller.

UC Cooperative Extension Advisor Pratap Devkota practices flying a drone while IGIS drone instructor Sean Hogan (left) looks on


Wes Matejovsky from the Imperial Irrigation District brings in a drone in for landing

We were also quite fortunate that the timing coincided with DREC's Farm Smart program. Farm Smart is a winter educational outreach program at DREC which caters to 'snowbirds' who descend upon the Imperial Valley from all over the country each winter to enjoy the pleasant weather. For six weeks, Farm Smart organizes half-day visits to the center including presentations, cooking lessons and a tractor tour of the center. Sean Hogan gave presentations to three Farm Smart groups on their farm wagons, explaining the how modern drones work and are being used to monitor crop health and growth. The local paper, The Imperial Valley Press, covered the day and wrote a story that appeared the following day.

Sean Hogan explains drone science for Farm Smart visitors

We were especially pleased to have a good contingent of workshop participants from Mexicali across the border. At a time when the headlines are filled with talk about walls, it was heartening to see the great potential for cross-border collaboration in ag technology. Many of the participants were from the Faculty of Engineering at La Universidad Autónoma de Baja California, where they are working on developing new sensors and navigation systems. Another group of participants came from the Imperial Irrigation District, whose many responsibilities includes monitoring hundreds of miles of irrigation canals.

From our perspective, the value of workshops goes well beyond the development of technical skills and knowledge. We love to hear about different applications of spatial technologies, and bring together diverse audiences with different areas of expertise and interests. These are the core ingredients of innovation and collaboration, which is the essence of Cooperative Extension. From this perspective, the DREC workshop was not only a great success in teaching a couple dozen people how to fly drones, but will continue to yield benefits that we can hardly anticipate.


Posted on Tuesday, February 21, 2017 at 8:20 AM
Tags: DREC (1), drones (5), IGIS (44), workshops (1)

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