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News — 13 August, 2015

Small UAS for Humanitarian Mapping

Small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS), also known as drones or UAVs, are revolutionizing the way we do remote sensing and aerial imaging.

 With less than $1,000 needed to build or buy one, anyone can now put a camera in the sky and collect images that mosaiced together allow for detailed mapping and modelling of the earth's surface. These systems are becoming the preferred tool of GIS professionals to survey small sites rapidly and affordably. Digital humanitarians are seeing the same opportunity and are now flying sUAS after disasters to improve damage assessment or during preparedness projects to support local community mapping.

During a presentation at the first HOT Summit, I described different types of sUAS, some of which don’t even look like small airplanes or have propellers at all. These are kites and balloons such as the ones designed by Public Lab, which can carry a small camera and collect images later mosaiced together in MapKnitter or OpenDroneMap. These systems are usually safer and more legal to fly than many popular multi-rotor and wing-like drones, but they don’t allow for covering the same amount of ground area programmatically through a predefined flight plan. Despite differences, the approach and the resulting “view-from-above” products are very similar and pose some challenging ethical questions with regards to privacy and airspace property rights. 

An excellent introduction and overview of these issues are  presented in chapters 2 and 3 of the recently published book “Drones and Aerial Observation” produced by the New America Foundation with support from the Omidyar Network and Humanity United. Chapter 4 of the same book includes a detailed overview of the process of making maps with drones. I had the opportunity to review and contribute insights for that chapter, and I believe it is a keystone document clearly explaining the current capabilities and limitations of drones for aerial mapping. Several of the use case stories included in the book were also presented during a summit organized in Washington DC on July 22nd. Those presentations have been recorded are now available of the event Website

The author of chapter 6, Patrick Meier, illustrated the use of drones for humanitarian response, detailing how members of the UAViators network deployed drones over areas affected by  the 2015 cyclone Pam event in Vanuatu and the devastating earthquakes in Nepal. During his presentation he also noted how much still needs to be done in terms of policies, safety and guidelines and how UAViators is actively addressing those issues by organizing events for UAS experts and innovators  and publishing reference documents. HOT will participate in next meeting organized at MIT in October, and we are excited to collaborate with UAViators in creating guidelines for damage assessment mapping from drone collected data.

Finally I would like to mention that members of the HOT community are already using drones in Tanzania, Mongolia, the Philippines, and Colombia in support to disaster response, recovery and preparedness mapping projects. Collected data has been processed into orthorectified mosaics and shared on OpenAerialMap. This is an exciting new workflow and set of technologies that will empower more and more digital humanitarians and local communities to map the Earth in unprecedented detail.


Imagery collected by drones used in mapping projects in Dar es Salam, Tanzania.