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WMU glides into drone consultancy

Services provided through university’s Upjohn Center include 3D models, vegetation maps for precision agriculture.

July 26, 2019
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WMU Drones
Charles Jay Emerson, left, and Adam Mathews operate drones through WMU's W.E. Upjohn Center for the Study of Geographical Change. Courtesy WMU

Western Michigan University is offering a new consulting service that uses drones for data collection and interpretation.

Offered through WMU's W.E. Upjohn Center for the Study of Geographical Change, the service includes professionals who use the necessary drones, cameras and sensors to collect data and then interpret it for clients.

The service could be used to answer questions like where a building is losing most of its heat, whether parts of a field are too dry for a certain crop or the volume of material in mounds of gravel.

Services and products available include thermal images, 3D models, digital surface elevation models, high-resolution digital orthophoto mosaics, vegetation maps for precision agriculture, four-kilobyte video and up to 20-megapixel photos.

WMU Department of Geography faculty members professor Charles Jay Emerson and assistant professor Adam Mathews are the consultants providing the service. They have long used drones in their courses and research.

The consultants have access to the Upjohn Center’s eight-piece drone fleet that includes two small quadcopters, one large fixed-wing UAV and two midsize quadcopters that are equipped to be stable despite electromagnetic interference.

“Given the resources we have available, we can help local industries, agricultural operations, governmental agencies — a lot of different groups that need precise data without having to spend a lot of money,” Emerson said.

Emerson said a typical local single-day project involving five hours of data collection and five hours of data processing would cost about $2,300.

Affordability and a new level of detail are big reasons consumer drones are so useful and popular, Mathews said.

Much of the work being done today with drones historically was done with piloted aircraft and satellites, even when employing more recently introduced remote sensing methods such as light detection and ranging, or lidar, which uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure variable distances to the Earth's surface.

Using piloted aircraft can be prohibitively costly, and satellites often do not provide the level of detail needed for small-area analyses, Matthews said.

“With drones, we have a very affordable, relatively easy-to-use platform that we can send up ourselves and get really detailed information," Mathews said.

In terms of aerial photography resolution, a single pixel in photos taken by satellites usually represents a few meters to a few kilometers. For piloted aircraft, one pixel will usually represent a few feet to a few meters. 

“But drones fly so low to the ground that for the most part, a single pixel represents a few centimeters,” Matthews said.

Despite using some other more advanced sensing methods, most of the mapping, even by satellites and aircraft, is done with off-the-shelf digital cameras, he said. 

Emerson said he and Mathews regularly experiment with the drones at their disposal to create map data for a variety of purposes. For instance, they've used the thermal imaging sensor to count deer in a section of WMU's Asylum Lake Preserve and look for heat leakage in an instructional building on campus. In addition, they've used other instruments to accurately measure the elevation of features in specific land areas and assess the health and abundance of vegetation in others.

Mathews, who has expertise in applications related to precision agriculture, said a growing use for drones is collecting information about the health and abundance of vegetation in orchards and agricultural fields. This type of data can be used for modeling such information as where water flows during heavy rainfall events or for indicating which areas might need more or less irrigation, fertilizer, herbicides or pesticides.

Emerson said the geography department's latest quadcopter purchases have greatly expanded the consultancy's capabilities, especially to conduct inspections.

“Take cellphone towers,” Emerson said. “It's safer to use UAVs rather than have a person climb up to look and see if a cable’s disconnected. The quadcopter we can use to do that is a bit more expensive than other drones, but it works where there’s a lot of electrical interference.”

The program began this spring.

For more information about the UAV consultancy, contact Kathleen Baker, director of the Upjohn Center, at kathleen.baker@wmich.edu or (269) 387-3364.

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