Small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for high-resolution environmental remote sensing: a soil moisture case study.

Successful research in environmental remote sensing relies on multiple-view approaches to data collection. In multi-stage remote sensing, data are collected at different geographic scales. Low-altitude, high-resolution aerial observations bridge the gap between in situ and satellite-based observations. These can be achieved by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), with minimum logistical support and lower operation/maintenance costs than manned aircrafts.

UAVs (also known as drones) are remotely-controlled or autonomous aircrafts without a pilot aboard. UAVs are categorized according to their range of action, flight altitude, endurance, maximum takeoff weight, and type of applications. They were initially designed for military purposes, to perform reconnaissance and attack missions while reducing casualties. However, they are now deployed in a small but growing number of civil, commercial, and scientific applications.

At Athabasca University, we have assembled several small UAVs, ranging from multicopters and EPP-foam airplanes with limited flight time (<1 hour) and payload weight (up to 2 kg) to larger fixed-wing aircrafts with extended endurance (6+ hours) and payload capability (up to 10 kg). We are using these UAVs mainly for tracking springtime snowmelt timing and spatial patterns and monitoring the impact of climate change on permafrost landscapes in Nordic communities. But, we are also looking into demonstrating the potential of UAV-based remote sensing for further applications, including soil and vegetation mapping, aerobiological sampling of pollens and pathogens, and the monitoring of populations of free-range mammals. The Summer 2015 research project will consist in equipping one of our small UAVs with a full-spectrum (UV, visible, and near-infrared) GoPro Hero 3 camera and a “coffee-can” L-band radar (QM-RDKIT Radar, Quonset Microwave) and deploy it for obtaining soil moisture maps in low vegetation areas and under forest over an experimental acreage located ?150 km west of Edmonton, Alberta. Ground-based observations of soil moisture, temperature and permittivity at 5 cm from the top soil surface will be collected with a portable, handheld device, concurrent with each flight. This information will be used to calibrate and validate a soil-moisture retrieval algorithm based on the UAV imagery. This project represent a unique opportunity for you to apply your knowledge of remote sensing while gaining new practical experience in the exciting rising field of unmanned aerial vehicles. We hope to welcome you to Athabasca University and beautiful Alberta in summer 2015!

Faculty Supervisor:

Frederique Pivot





Engineering - computer / electrical



Athabasca University



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