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U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and independent scientists gathered in Auburn, Maine, to evaluate the use of sensor-mounted unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drones, to gauge stream stage, velocity, bathymetry and discharge. The technology is being evaluated and modeled to determine whether it will support the fast, accurate and safe measurement of rivers, especially when they are flooded or contain floating trees, ice or other debris.

Close to two dozen hydrologic, geospatial and scientific experts gathered in what has been dubbed the “2019 Aquatic Airshow” to assess this technology. They were led by John Fulton of the USGS Colorado Water Science Center, Jack Eggleston of the USGS Water Mission Area Hydrologic Remote Sensing Branch, and Joe Adams and Sandy Brosnahan of the USGS National UAS Project Office. Woolpert Chief Scientist Qassim Abdullah was a representative from the private sector. The USGS Water Mission Area works with partners to monitor, assess, research and report on a wide range of water resources and conditions, including streamflow, groundwater, water quality, water use and water availability.

The testing involved equipping drones with noncontact sensors, including ground-penetrating radar for measuring river depths, doppler velocity radar and cameras with velocimetric analysis for measuring water surface velocities and calculating mean-channel velocities; and high-resolution cameras for photogrammetric mapping of surface topography and vegetation structure. Team members from the USGS Water Science Centers in Colorado, New England and Virginia collected ground-truth river monitoring data with acoustic doppler current profilers deployed from a boat and multiple other surveying techniques to verify the accuracy of the drone-based stream data.

Photo Credit: Mario Martin-Alciati, USGS

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