Science Center Objects

The Aerial Imaging and Mapping group (AIM), at the U.S. Geological Survey Woods (USGS) Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center provides UAS services to scientists to advance the science mission of the Coastal and Marine Geology Program. Scientists at the Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center have been using UASs to acquire imagery of coastal and wetland environments, which is then used to produce detailed topographic and visual reflectance datasets. UAS technology is used to support the work of geologists, engineers, physical scientists, geographers, and geochemists who study coastal erosion, sediment transport and storm response, habitat classification, biomass mapping, and marsh stability.

Science Applications

Unmanned aerial system (UAS) technology provides a rapid and low-cost solution for mapping coastal environments and assessing short- and long-term changes. The interdisciplinary nature of the data collected and the breadth of applications makes UAS technology applicable to multiple scientific investigations.

One of the primary science applications for UASs is mapping. Drones can make accurate maps by combining images, which can be interpolated into three-dimensional imagery with software that utilizes photogrammetric techniques to form orthomosaics and digital surface models. Using control points on the ground, these maps can be produced with horizontal resolutions of 5 to 10 centimeters (cm) and vertical precision within 8 cm, precision is measured compared with independent measurements from global navigation satellite system equipment with real-time kinematic positioning (RTK). The maps created with drone-acquired imagery are comparable in quality with images from light detection and ranging (lidar) surveys with color processing but can be produced at a fraction of the cost.

UAS map products can be used to meet many science objectives, including to quantify geomorphic changes in coastal landscapes, classify landcover and geomorphic features in wetland and riparian landscapes, and assess habitat suitability. UASs can be equipped with multispectral cameras (cameras that capture images within specific ranges across the electromagnetic spectrum) and can be used to classify vegetation or identify invasive species. Other potential applications for UASs include inferring nearshore bathymetry from drone imagery of waves, measuring shallow bathymetry in streams and estuaries, measuring stream or inlet flow using image processing methods or UAS-mounted radar, and making thermal measurements to identify groundwater discharges.

UAS Capabilities

The AIM group at the Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center currently [2018] has five UAS pilots who are certified in accordance with U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) policies. The center currently has three 3DR Solo quadcopter drones, and a Birds Eye View FireFly6 Pro fixed-wing UAS. Both UASs can be mounted with a Pentax Ricoh GRII natural-color, high-resolution, global shutter camera, a MicaSense Rededge3 multispectral wavelength camera, or a GoPro Hero 4 compact camera. Trimble Spectra Precision SP80 Global Navigation Satellite System receivers are used to precisely geolocate control points at survey areas. Images from drone flights are processed with Agisoft Photoscan software, and Pix4D processing software.

With this equipment, the AIM group can survey a study area of approximately 0.5 to 1 square kilometer (160 acres) per day. Each multiplatform survey requires approximately five people to perform the survey efficiently, including two pilots, two survey crew, and a visual observer and data recorder.


Photograph of a USGS drone sitting on an orange target

2018 Woods Hole, MA Science Stroll USGS drone demonstration

The USGS Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center maintains an ongoing collaboration with scientists and UAS technicians at the USGS National Unmanned Aircraft Systems Project in Denver, Colorado; other institutions, including the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; and local UAS operators and contractors. Woods Hole pilots have assisted DOI’s Office of Aviation Services (OAS) in monitoring natural hazard emergencies and have been instructors for OAS-sponsored training classes. This networking and collaboration helps the AIM group remain current in a rapidly evolving technological field.


Photograph of USGS UAS pilot wearing an orange USGS shirt

Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center's Aerial Imaging and Mapping rock stars preparing to fly Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) mission while a river of lava flows in the background