Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

A USGS Unmanned Aircraft Systems Aquatic Airshow field testing and demonstration event occurred 4/30/2019 - 5/2/2019 on the Saco River near Biddeford, and the Androscoggin River near Lewiston in Maine, USA.

2019 USGS UAS Aquatic Airshow participants
2019 Aquatic Airshow participants at the Androscoggin River in Auburn Maine, May 1, 2019, photograph by Mario Martin-Alciati USGS. Bottom row L-R: Andy Massey, John Fulton, Sandy Brosnahan, John Young, Russ Lotspeich. Top row L-R: Frank Engel, Tom Orcutt, Per Westholm, Curtis Yeager, Qassim Abdullah, Mark Harvey, Eric White, Sean Andrews, John Lane, Jeff Kinsey, Jack Eggleston, Joe Adams, Cian Dawson.

A USGS Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Aquatic Airshow field testing and demonstration event occurred 4/30/2019 - 5/2/2019 on the Saco River near Biddeford, and the Androscoggin River near Lewiston in Maine, USA.

At the airshow, a group of USGS scientists and technicians gathered along with experts from Guideline Geo and Woolpert, to test non-contact sensors for measuring stream discharge using drones, also called unmanned aircraft systems or UAS.  Scientists at the event performed a breakthrough demonstration of river discharge measurement made by drone. River stage, width, bathymetry, and surface velocity were all measured by drone and analysed to produce an accurate river discharge value.

USGS scientists and field personnel traditionally conduct a discharge measurement  either by wading or working from a boat. Due to the potential danger and high risk to personnel safety, hydrologic measurement work is limited during very high flow events, ice break-up, or large floods, when large debris in the current presents hazards. Additionally, conducting measurements in remote areas is also limited by the lack of ability to transport equipment that is needed.

The successful discharge measurement was made possible using several cutting-edge prototype drones. A radar for measuring water speed was integrated on a commercially-available quadcopter drone. In addition, a light-weight, self-contained ground-penetrating radar (GPR) system was mounted on a hexacopter drone.

Doppler Radar Mounted On A Drone for Stream Velocity
The sensor mounted on the drone is called the Qcam and is a Doppler radar sensor providing velocity from a hovering position above the river. USGS hydrologic technician (left) aboard a USGS John Boat mounted with Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler observes the Qcam conducting a measurement. (Right) The 3DR Solo quadcopter mounted with Qcam is prepared to take off.  
USGS Tests Prototype Ground Penetrating Radar Drone
The USGS, in cooperative research and development with GuidelineGEO, tested an 80 MHz self contained ground penetrating radar unit on a DJI Matrice 600 hexcopter (left). This platform was tested for flight performance and for measurement of river channel cross-sectional area as well as river water depth and river width. (Right) Drone pilots Cian Dawson of the Water Mission Area begins a river crossing scan while co-pilot Sandy Brosnahan of the Coastal Hazards Program - Woods Hole takes flight notes as well as visually monitors drone and Joe Adams from the USGS National UAS Project Office observes.

Non-contact drone measurements were tested for accuracy by comparing them to ground-truth data collected by a team of USGS hydrologists and hydrologic technicians from the New England and Virginia-West Virginia Water Science Centers using a conventional acoustic doppler current profilers (ADCP), data loggers, and surveying techniques via boat and on foot.


USGS Water Science Center Personnel Conducting Measurements
New England Water Science Center and Virginia - West Virginia Water Science Center personnel collected measurements using GPS surveying equipment and ADCP to collect ground-truth data and quality assure non-contact data (above left Tom Orcutt, Andy Massey; above right Andy Massey and Jeff Kinsey; lower left Russ Lotspeich on shore and Jeff Kinsey and Sean Andrews on the boat: lower right - Andy Massey) .

When fully developed and tested, this new technology will enable a team of two technicians with a drone to make fast, accurate, and safe measurements of rivers even when there are flood conditions, or when rivers contain floating trees, ice, or other dangerous debris. Additionally, this technology will allow for measurements to be conducted in remote areas or hard to access sites of interest. 

Two additional cutting edge prototype drones and methods were tested. A low cost and commercially available drone was used to collect high quality video to determine the speed of the water without touching it with innovative video analyzation techniques. Secondly, a small quadcopter drone mounted with a camera and onboard computer was used to take many photographs along programmed flight paths. The image data was then processed through structure for motion software to create high resolution maps of the sites as well as to generate 3d maps and digital elevation models.

USGS LSPIV and Photogrametry Drones
Frank Engel prepares the DJI Mavic Pro quadcopter, while Sean Andrews and Jeff Kinsey of the New England WSC observe (left) . The Mavic was used for Large Scale Particle Image Velocimetry (LSPIV). High quality video was collected to determine the velocity and quantity of the water with innovative video analyzation techniques. The Mavic was also used to position other UAS using its live view. (Right) This 3DR Solo UAS mounted with a camera and computer was used to fly programmed flight paths while taking many photographs. Photos were then stitched together using Structure from Motion (SfM) Software. Satellite aerial photography available does not usually coincide with the dates of a particular site visit. This technology allows for the creation of a high resolution map quickly as well as 3Dmaps and digital elevation models all at the time the measurements are taken.

This event is part of a larger effort of USGS Water Mission Area to develop a next generation water observing system (NGWOS) using cutting edge research and technology. When fully implemented, the USGS Next Generation integrated water observing system will provide quantitative information on streamflow, evapotranspiration, snowpack, soil moisture, a broad suite of water quality constituents, connections between groundwater and surface water, and water use. This information will be directly coupled with the National Water Model and other advanced modeling tools to provide state-of-the-art flood and drought forecasts, drive emergency- and water-management decision support systems, and to address difficult water resource questions.

Get Our News

These items are in the RSS feed format (Really Simple Syndication) based on categories such as topics, locations, and more. You can install and RSS reader browser extension, software, or use a third-party service to receive immediate news updates depending on the feed that you have added. If you click the feed links below, they may look strange because they are simply XML code. An RSS reader can easily read this code and push out a notification to you when something new is posted to our site.