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Historical Structure from Motion (HSfM): Automated processing of historical aerial photographs for long-term topographic change analysis

December 7, 2022

Precisely measuring the Earth’s changing surface on decadal to centennial time scales is critical for many science and engineering applications, yet long-term records of quantitative landscape change are often temporally and geographically sparse. Archives of scanned historical aerial photographs provide an opportunity to augment these records with accurate elevation measurements that capture the historical state of the Earth surface. Structure from Motion (SfM) photogrammetry workflows produce high-quality digital elevation models (DEMs) and orthoimage mosaics from these historical images, but time-intensive tasks like manual image preprocessing (e.g., fiducial marker identification) and ground control point (GCP) selection impede processing at scale. We developed an automated method to process historical images and generate self-consistent time series of high-resolution (0.5–2 m) DEMs and orthomosaics, without manual GCP selection. The method relies on SfM to correct camera interior and exterior orientation and a robust multi-stage co-registration approach using modern reference terrain datasets for geolocation refinement. We demonstrate the method using scanned images from the North American Glacier Aerial Photography (NAGAP) archive collected between 1967 and 1997. We present results for two sites with variable photo acquisition geometry and overlap — Mount Baker and South Cascade Glacier in Washington State, USA. The automated method corrects initial camera position errors of several kilometers and produces accurately georeferenced, high-resolution DEMs and orthoimages, regardless of camera configuration, acquisition geometry, terrain characteristics, and reference DEM properties. The average RMS reprojection error following bundle adjustment optimization was 0.67 px (0.15 m) for the 261 images contributing to 10 final DEM mosaics between 1970 and 1992 at Mount Baker, and 0.65 px (0.13 m) for the 243 images contributing to 18 individual DEMs between 1967 and 1997 at South Cascade Glacier. The relative accuracy of elevation values in the historical time series stacks was 0.68 m at Mount Baker and 0.37 m at South Cascade Glacier. Our products have reduced systematic error and improved accuracy compared to DEM products generated using SfM with manual GCP selection. Final elevation change measurement precision was ∼">∼0.7–1.0 m over a 30-year period, enabling the study of processes with rates as low as ∼">∼1-3 cm/yr. Our results demonstrate the potential of this scalable method to rapidly process archives of historical imagery and deliver new quantitative insights on long-term geodetic change and Earth surface processes.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2023
Title Historical Structure from Motion (HSfM): Automated processing of historical aerial photographs for long-term topographic change analysis
DOI 10.1016/j.rse.2022.113379
Authors Friedrich Knuth, David Shean, Shashank Bhushan, Eli Schwat, Oleg Alexandrov, Christopher J. McNeil, Amaury Dehecq, Caitlyn Florentine, Shad O'Neel
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Remote Sensing of Environment
Index ID 70238766
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center