Collecting GIS Data with Drones

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Drones are rapidly being adopted as a way to quickly collect aerial imagery and other forms of geospatial data.

What are drones?

Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), also known as drones, are aircraft that fly without a human pilot on board.  Drone flights are controlled either via radio by a pilot on the ground or by a preset flight path set by a computer program.

USGS tests drone-based ground-penetrating radar. Photo: Carole Johnson, USGS. Public domain.
USGS tests drone-based ground-penetrating radar. Photo: Carole Johnson, USGS. Public domain.

Rise of Drones

A recent report found that over a six-year span, over 15,000 news articles were devoted to the technology and civilian use of drones has now eclipsed military uses (Choi-Fitzpatrick, 2016). Drones are now used for a variety of purposes such as surveillance, information collection, search and rescue, exploration, and research.

Non-military use drawn from global estimates (2009-2015) gathered by Choi-Fitzpatrick et al (2016).
Non-military use drawn from global estimates (2009-2015) gathered by Choi-Fitzpatrick et al (2016) via “Up in the Air“.

The Potential of Drones for Collecting GIS Data

Data collection using drones is far cheaper cost than airplane or satellite derived imagery.  As low-flying aircraft, drones can also collect data at a higher resolution.  Rapid post-processing of data also means a turnaround in a matter of hours as opposed to days or months (Pritt, 2014).

Drones can help collect data for…

Disaster Response

Since drones can be rapidly deployed and can access remote areas, this technology is quickly becoming a critical tool for assessing hazards and emergency response planning. UAViators is a crowdsourced collective that coordinates geographic data collection among its 2,000 members in more than 80 countries in response to disaster response needs around the world.  Most recently, the group put out a call to collect geographic data to help with humanitarian response planning after the April 2016 Ecuador earthquake. By sending drones into disaster areas to collect geographic data that helps to assess conditions, emergency response teams can better coordinate rescue and relief areas.


Researchers at Central Michigan University use drones to map out threatened plant species with a specialized camera that takes extremely high-resolution images in 334 colors.  The imagery is then processed using remote sensing in order to map out the locations of Pitcher’s thistle, a threatened native plant that grows on beaches and grassland dunes along the shorelines of Lake Michigan, Lake Superior and Lake Huron. Researcher Benjamin Heumann: “Right now, the Environmental Protection Agency spends millions of dollars sending botanists and other scientists out into the field to count species manually, but we don’t have a lot of good spatial data.  We’re hoping that by using this new technology, coupled with ground sampling efforts, we’ll be able to cover larger areas and get a better understanding about the state of the ecosystems around the Great Lakes and how they’re changing” (Science in the Sky, 2014). Benjamin Heumann, a professor with Central Michigan University uses a drone to map threatened plant species

Protecting Indigenous Lands

Indigenous Dayaks in Setulang, Indonesia are the appointed conservators of Taneh Ulen, a forest conservation area which is under threat from illegal clearcutting by palm oil companies.  Documenting land ownership is the best strategy that indigenous populations have to fight back.  Government data is mostly collected at a scale of 1:250,000 which is far too coarse of a resolution for the type of detailed mapping needed.  An Indonesian researcher, Irendra Radjawali, was able to devise a drone-based imagery capture from which the Dayaks were able to create detailed maps showing the forest conservation area boundaries which was then submitted to the government for protection under its “one map” policy protecting indigenous rights (Greenwood, 2015).

Precision Farming

Drones are proving to be a valuable tool in precision agriculture.  Precision agriculture uses technology to provide high resolution detail about crop health and soil conditions which, in turns, allows the farmer to precisely apply needed water, fertilizers, or pesticides only where it is needed instead of applying the same amounts across a field (Agribotix, n.d) .  In Iowa City, a farmer mounted infrared cameras onto a drone which was then flown over his family’s fields (O’Leary, 2014).  These cameras acquire imagery in bands that can sense vegetation health and identify areas in the fields that are nitrogen deficient through a process known as Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI).

Drone can be deployed to rapidly acquire geospatial data about the health of agricultural fiels. Image: DroneDeploy
Drone can be deployed to rapidly acquire geospatial data about the health of agricultural fields. Image: DroneDeploy

Drone Regulation

Unlike satellites and aircrafts, UAV is a largely unregulated sector.  Laws and regulations vary greatly from country to country and from state to state. It has been estimated that 40 laws governing drone use have been passed in almost 30 U.S. states (Choi-Fitzpatrick, 2016). Despite intense clamoring, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is still developing regulations for UAVs in the civilian space and exemptions for commercial use is being done on a case-by-case basis under Section 333 (FAA, 2016).

Drone Safety

Drones have become the new technological equivalent of rubbernecking.  The increasing use of drones around disaster events like wildfires has endangered the lives of emergency responders on numerous occasions with helicopter pilots reporting near misses (Blackstone, 2015).

Drone Noise

Noise, safety, and privacy concerns top the list of negative aspects of drone usage in general.

The National Park Service banned all drone use within its jurisdiction over concerns that the usage of this technology will have a detrimental affect on its wildlife populations (National Park Service, 2014).

Drones in the Future

Developers are working on fuel cells to extend drone operation time.  Researchers at Stanford recently built a wind tunnel to study bird flight in order to make drones more robust in flight (Stanford, 2016).

Drones are being developed to carry more types of sensors to improve the types of geographic data collected such as as thermal imaging, air quality sensors, and sound meters (Lowry, 2015).


Blackstone, J.  (2015, August 11).  Drones pose new risks for firefighters battling California wildfires.

Up in the Air: A Global Estimate of Non-Violent Drone Use 2009-2015 [PDF].

Eisenbeiss H. (2004, November). A mini unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV): system overview and image acquisition. Presentation at the International Workshop on “Processing and visualization using high-resolution imagery”, November 18 -20, 2004.

Gilman, D.  (2014, June).  Unmanned aerial vehicles in humanitarian response.

Greenwood, F. (2015, June 2).  Drones to the rescue: How unmanned aerial vehicles can help indigenous people protect their land.

Lowry, J.  (2015, June 8).  Future of Drones.

Misconceptions about UAV-collected NDVI imagery and the Agribotix experience in ground-truthing these images for agriculture.  (n.d.).

National Park Service (2014, June 20). Unmanned aircraft to be prohibited in America’s national parks [Press release].

O’Leary, J.  (2014, October 27).  Iowa City farmer uses drone to aide farming precision.

Pritt, M. (2014, October).   Fast orthorectified mosaicking of thousands of aerial photographs from small UAVs.  Presentation at the 2014 IEEE Applied Imagery Pattern Recognition Workshop, October 14 – 16, 2014.

Science in the sky: Unmanned aerial vehicle with camera gives researchers bird’s-eye view to map threatened species.  (2014, August 7).

Stanford engineers build a one-of-a-kind wind tunnel for birds that paves the way for better drones.  (2016, April 22).


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