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Coastal and Marine Geology is Airborne!

A number of Coastal and Marine Geology researchers have completed the Unmanned Aerial Systems certification classes held by the Department of Interior Office of Aviation Safety and the USGS Unmanned Aerial Systems program, creating a fast and inexpensive way to make accurate three-dimensional maps and take aerial photos.

This article is part of the April 2017 issue of the Sound Waves newsletter.

A man and woman kneel behind a drone in a field with black plastic planting rows prepped, and domes in the distance
Sandy Brosnahan (left) and Jon Borden at Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) training in Santa Cruz, California. Photo credit: Cian Dawson, USGS. 

The first two classes of USGS Coastal and Marine Geology Program (CMGP) pilots have graduated from drone camp! Several Coastal and Marine Geology folks have completed the Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS; also known as “drones”) certification classes held by the Department of Interior Office of Aviation Safety and the USGS Unmanned Aerial Systems program. The first class was held February 27–March 3 at the USGS Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center (PCMSC) in Santa Cruz, California, and facilitated by local host Josh Logan. In addition to Josh, other newly minted pilots from the USGS Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center include Shawn Harrison, Ferdinand Oberle, and Alex Snyder. Jon Borden and Sandy Brosnahan, both from the USGS Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center (WHCMSC) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, became the first USGS East Coast pilots. All pilots have also passed a written exam offered by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and are commercially certified small UAS operators under the recent FAA Part 107 guidelines. The second drone camp was held April 17–21 in Gainesville, Florida, and produced more pilots, including Brad Bickford (Columbia River Research Laboratory), Joel Smith (Geologic Hazards Science Center), William Jones (Wetland and Aquatic Research Center [WARC]), Bradley Stith (WARC), Andrew Ritchie (PCMSC), Emily Sturdivant (WHCMSC), Jenna Brown (St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center [SPCMSC]), Karen Morgan (SPCMSC), and Christine Kranenburg (SPCMSC).

A man stands near the beach in front of a shrub, holding a controller, with a drone flying over the beach behind him
Shawn Harrison uses his new skills to check out the surf at Santa Cruz, California. Photo credit: Shawn Harrison, USGS. 
A closeup photo of a black UAS (drone) sitting on the pavement with a USGS sticker on its front and a camera attached
The 3DR Solo with GoPro Hero4 camera and gimbal. Coming to a survey area near you soon. Photo credit: Shawn Harrison, USGS. 

The UAS operators can now fly 3DR Solos, which are small quadcopters that can be equipped with a high-quality Ricoh camera for mapping, a GoPro camera for videos and wide-angle stills, or a five-band multispectral MicaSense camera for imaging vegetation. Flight operations are permitted below 400 feet in daytime in unrestricted airspace more than five miles from airports. Federal law allows flights over private property; USGS policy is to give notice and obtain permission whenever possible. Flights over National Park Service or U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service property require permits from those agencies.

UAS provide a fast and inexpensive way to make highly accurate three-dimensional maps (digital surface models and orthophoto mosaics with errors of less than 10 centimeters) of relatively small areas (a few square kilometers). At present, ground-control points are required to produce highly accurate maps, so UAS mapping operations include a ground survey crew. In the future, advances in airborne GPS and inertial navigation will allow similar accuracies without ground control points. Other uses for UAS in coastal environments include habitat mapping, animal (e.g., bird or marine mammal) counts, and shallow bathymetric mapping. Future developments will allow measurement of waves and currents.

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