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Intelligent Robotics Group, USGS, and NOAA Team Demonstrate UAS Streamflow Mapping Over the Sacramento River
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Intelligent Robotics Group, USGS, and NOAA Team Demonstrate UAS Streamflow Mapping Over the Sacramento River

Members of the Intelligent Systems Division’s Intelligent Robotics Group (IRG) and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) are developing an autonomous Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) to map streamflow from the air. This technology will provide measurements for the national stream gage network for areas that lack gages. Over the course of a week in September, the team demonstrated the aerial streamflow mapping capability successfully over the Sacramento River for the first time. IRG and USGS team members integrated a natural color video camera, a thermal camera, a laser range finder, and an embedded Central Processing Unit (CPU) into a platform-independent payload that will enable usage with various UAS. The team also worked with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who found a suitable field site and took field measurements used for calibration and assessing accuracy of the image-derived estimates.

The team flew a hexacopter equipped with the NASA/USGS payload of visible and thermal imagers, obtaining high-resolution video across a Hartley Island stretch of the Sacramento River. Water depth was estimated with the images using Optimal Band Ratio Analysis (OBRA), and surface flow velocities using Particle Image Velocimetry (PIV). Data was gathered over the course of two days and the three test flights. Streamflow results are close to those taken by an independent NOAA team field-based measurement. Similarity of the results between the aerial mapping and traditional river flow estimates shows that the aerial mapping system can provide hydrographers with a cost-effective, user-friendly means for taking regular and as-needed river and stream flow measurements, as well as measurements under hazardous high-flow conditions that pose a risk to staff and equipment. This platform allows a larger number of USGS streamflow measurements in a larger number of places and in locations that are difficult to access, and additionally provides greater safety for staff in dangerous conditions.

BACKGROUND: This first aerial streamflow mapping test is the latest collaboration in a long-standing partnership between NASA and the USGS. This UAS streamflow mapping platform and its ability to take a greater number of measurements will enable the USGS to extend its water observation capability across the nation’s rivers and streams, leading to better flood resilience and drought monitoring. The Intelligent Robotics Group partners with the USGS and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) to develop Earth-monitoring and analysis capabilities for scientists with both aerial and satellite imagery.

PROGRAM FUNDING: USGS National Innovation Center

TEAM: Michael Dille, Ted Morse, Antoine Tardy, and Uland Wong; USGS: Isaac Anderson, Cian Dawson, Liz Hyde, Paul Kinzel, and Carl Legleiter; NOAA: Lee Harrison


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