Integration of sUAS into Hydrogeophysical Studies: Technology Demonstration and Evaluation

Science Center Objects

The USGS is evaluating the integration of small unoccupied aircraft systems – sUAS or "drones" –  into USGS hydrogeophysical studies. The following projects are part of a Water Resources Mission Area demonstration and evaluation effort in collaboration with USGS Water Science Centers (WSCs) starting in June 2018.



Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge Coastal Wetland Study

USGS Water Science Center: Virginia-West Virginia Water Science Center

Unoccupied aircraft systems (UAS) multispectral and natural color imaging to map areas of stressed vegetation along coastal wetland/upland boundaries and to document current conditions.

Small unoccupied aircraft systems (sUAS) surveys provide the opportunity to remotely document changes in coastal wetland habitat at scales consistent with local-scale management of natural and anthropogenic resources to respond to or mitigate climate-related vulnerabilities. This Summer 2018 activity is part of a Water Science Center pilot project to locate areas where rising groundwater levels and extended periods of inundation have contributed to vegetation stress and changes in wetland plant communities at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Virginia Beach, Virginia. This evaluation is intended to launch an ongoing Water Science Center project to characterize changes over time at the NWR as part of a new Water Science Center sUAS program.


Bemidji Toxics Site Field Survey

USGS Water Science Center: Upper Midwest Water Science Center (Minnesota Office)

Assess whether extent of historical hydrocarbon release can be identified via changes in vegetation and (or) soil characteristics as observed in sUAS multispectral, natural color, and thermal infrared data.

High-resolution multispectral sUAS sensors may enable rapid, safe, and efficient identification and (or) characterization of toxics releases to the environment. This Summer 2018 effort investigated whether differences in multispectral data at the Bemidji Toxics Program site oil spill area, compared to unaffected areas, can be related to changes in soil and water properties and vegetation types due to the oil spilled, and the degradation products that have migrated through the unsaturated and saturated zone. 


Multispectral Vegetation Characterization for Evapotranspiration Studies

USGS Water Science Center: Oregon Water Science Center

Multispectral imaging of vegetation for automated vegetation classification tool development.

Oregon Water Science Center is conducting evapotranspiration studies in the Harney Basin, Oregon, as part of an effort to better characterize the regional water budget. Landsat data are being used to develop automated classification tools. Higher resolution multispectral data are needed for training the software were collected with sUAS during Summer 2018. Successful demonstration of automated classification of vegetation based on multi-scale remote sensing data has applications across the USGS.


Photo of scientists operating small drone in the field

In this photo, USGS Oregon Water Science Center hydrologists Brandon Overstreet and Gabe Gordon are using a small unoccupied aircraft system – sUAS or "drone" – to collect information about vegetation on Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in August 2018. (Credit: Cian Dawson, USGS. Public domain.)


Mapping Periphyton in the Nearshore of Lake Tahoe

USGS Water Science Center: Nevada Water Science Center

Multispectral imaging for characterization of seasonal periphyton blooms over time.

High-resolution airborne multispectral data may be a valuable tool for characterizing algal blooms at a scale and timeframe to inform water management and response decisions. Groundwater is known to be a key source of nutrients to periphyton communities during the winter-spring growth period in Lake Tahoe. This April 2019 field study assessed how high-resolution near-shore multispectral data can be used to characterize the extent and biomass of the Lake Tahoe periphyton blooms. This is part of ongoing USGS applied research at Lake Tahoe and has applications to USGS algal bloom studies nationally.


Las Vegas Wash Groundwater Discharge Study

USGS Water Science Center: Nevada Water Science Center

Thermal infrared imaging to locate and characterize groundwater seeps that are source of perchlorate to drinking water supplies.

Thermal infrared (TIR) imaging with sUAS allows for landscape-scale characterization of focused groundwater discharge locations in winter and summer when groundwater temperature contrasts the land surface. Groundwater discharge in the Las Vegas Wash (LVW) in Clark County, Nevada, is a source of perchlorate to the LVW, and downstream Lake Mead and Colorado River. The goal of this November 2018 effort is to use TIR imaging to aid in location and evaluation of areas of gains and losses in discharge from seeps and bank storage during high and low discharge periods along the LVW. This is part of ongoing NV Water Science Center analysis of groundwater/surface-water interaction in the LVW.

Photo of drone and controller under umbrella with stream and hills in the background

sUAS being prepared to collect thermal infrared data to assess groundwater discharge into Las Vegas Wash, in Clark County, Nevada. The umbrella provides shade to keep the equipment from getting too hot. (Credit: Cian Dawson, USGS. Public domain.)