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QCam: sUAS-based doppler radar for measuring river discharge

October 12, 2020
The U.S. Geological Survey is actively investigating remote sensing of surface velocity and river discharge (discharge) from satellite-, high altitude-, small, unmanned aircraft systems- (sUAS or drone), and permanent (fixed) deployments. This initiative is important in ungaged basins and river reaches that lack the infrastructure to deploy conventional streamgaging equipment. By coupling alternative discharge algorithms with sensors capable of measuring surface velocity, streamgage networks can be established in regions where data collection was previously impractical or impossible. To differentiate from satellite or high-altitude platforms, near-field remote sensing is conducted from sUAS or fixed platforms. QCam is a Doppler (velocity) radar mounted and integrated on a 3DR© Solo sUAS. It measures the along-track surface velocity by spot dwelling in a river cross section at a vertical where the maximum surface velocity is recorded. The surface velocity is translated to a mean-channel (mean) velocity using the probability concept (PC), and discharge is computed using the PC-derived mean velocity and cross-sectional area. Factors including surface-scatterer quality, flight altitude, propwash, wind drift, and sample duration may affect the radar-returns and the subsequent computation of mean velocity and river discharge. To evaluate the extensibility of the method, five science flights were conducted on four rivers of varying size and dynamics and included the Arkansas River, Colorado (CO), USA (two events); Salcha River near Salchaket, Alaska (AK), USA; South Platte River, CO, USA; and the Tanana River, AK, USA. QCam surface velocities and river discharges were compared to conventional streamgaging methods, which represented truth. QCam surface velocities for the Arkansas River, Salcha River, South Platte River, and Tanana River were 1.02 meters per second (m/s) and 1.43 m/s; 1.58 m/s; 0.90 m/s; and 2.17 m/s, respectively. QCam discharges (and percent differences) were 9.48 (0.3%) and 20.3 cubic meters per second (m3/s) (2.5%); 62.1 m3/s (−10.4%); 3.42 m3/s (7.3%), and 1579 m3/s (−18.8%). QCam results compare favorably with conventional streamgaging and are a viable near-field remote sensing technology that can be operationalized to deliver real-time surface velocity, mean velocity, and river discharge, if cross-sectional area is available.