Drones help scientists track changing conditions — The Pueblo Chieftain

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From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Early warning of floods coming off wildfire scars to more accurately estimating runoff from snowpack could be improved with drones, the Arkansas Basin Roundtable learned this week.

“It’s another tool to validate Snotel data to focus on the timing and volume of water,” said John Fulton, a hydraulic engineer with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Drones, along with new technology that uses groundbased portable radar equipment to measure water levels and velocity, can detect in advance when debris flows come off burn scars such as Waldo Canyon, a 2012 fire near Colorado Springs, or this year’s Hayden Pass Fire still smoldering in Fremont County. The drones are able to map steep terrain that otherwise would be inaccessible, Fulton said.

“We use the drones along with ground-based imagery to gauge the probability of debris flows,” he said.

Fulton explained the practical applications of drones in the Arkansas Valley along with Jeff Sloan, who heads the national Unmanned Aircraft Systems project for the USGS. They brought a couple of samples to the roundtable meeting at Pueblo Community College Wednesday, a fixed-wing model and a four-rotor hovercraft.

“I’m disappointed you didn’t fly one around the room,” laughed Sandy White, the roundtable chairman.

The technology has improved tremendously since the USGS started its drone program in 2008, Sloan said. The USGS started using the Honeywell T-Hawk, an Army surplus model. Now, equipment runs more silently and some of it is easy to learn to fly.

“It sounded like a flying lawn mower, so it wasn’t very good for observing wildlife,” Sloan laughed.

The Department of Interior began looking into the program to improve mapping vast tracts of federal land with better accuracy. Smaller drones are able to fill a gap with sharper images — down to 4 square centimeters — than higher flying drones, aircraft or satellites provide.

And cheaper.

Showing side-by-side images, Sloan pointed out that a $400 digital camera mounted on a small drone at low altitude produced a clearer image than a $1 million imaging system on a satellite.

Besides cameras, drones can provide images using thermal, multispectral, hyperspectral, Lidar (light radar) and magnetometry equipment.

Using GPS, it is possible to create multilayer maps of areas relatively cheaply.

Drones also allow better real-time monitoring, such as the landslide-prone DeBeque Canyon in Western Colorado, Sloan said.

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