New Mexico Geological Society Annual Spring Meeting
April 7, 2017

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Turning Toys Into Tools: Unmanned Aircrafts for the 21st Century Geoscientist

Matthew J. Zimmerer1 and Jake I. Ross1

1New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, New Mexico Tech, Socorro, NM, 87801,

Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), commonly known as “drones”, are an established but rapidly developing technology for scientists, engineers, farmers, artists, and numerous other private and public entities. This presentation will introduce new UAS mapping capabilities at the New Mexico Bureau of Geology. UAS allow geoscientists to make observations and measurements in an important part of the scale spectrum that lies between satellite and ground-based photogrammetry methods. Traditionally, this part of the scale spectrum is accessed by piloted fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft. Although useful, these aircrafts are expensive, require extensive training and certification, and have limited availability, all of which inhibits their full potential in the geosciences. In contrast, most UAS are relatively inexpensive, lightweight, and require only minimal to moderate training and certification. All of these features make using UAS an attractive solution to addressing many geologic problems. The New Mexico Bureau of Geology recently acquired two UAS, one turnkey quadcopter for mapping and aerial photography and one custom-built hexacopter for research and development. Freely available open source software is used to process the aerial photos into orthomosiacs, digital elevation models, and 3D models. These models approach the accuracy of traditional photogrammetry methods and in most cases are at a much higher resolution. In addition to aerial photography the UAS are outfitted with a “companion computer” designed at the NM Bureau of Geology. The primary software for this computer is developed in-house offering a large degree of autonomy and flexibility. These lightweight microcomputers are used for collecting georeferenced scientific data, such as temperature, humidity, and UV intensity. Additional payloads including thermal cameras, multi-spectral cameras, and atmospheric or gas monitoring equipment are also possible. The lightweight design and low cost of our UAS make them a particularly attractive tool for geomorphic, hydrologic, and hazard mapping studies, where repeated time-sensitive measurements of a landscape are necessary. In addition to research, UAS imagery and 3D models provide a memorable immersive experience for outreach and educational services, allowing users to virtually explore geologic features in new and exciting ways. This presentation will also focus on some initial case studies of field sites in New Mexico, operating limitations, certification requirements, and legal aspects of using UAS for the geosciences.


UAS, drone, photogrammetry, aerial photography, mapping

pp. 77

2017 New Mexico Geological Society Annual Spring Meeting
April 7, 2017, Macey Center, New Mexico Tech campus, Socorro, NM