Camera-Equipped Autocopters Map the Treetops

Baltimore, MD (October 30, 2013) – Researchers are challenging ecologists to rethink the way they collect data by developing small unmanned copters that easily generate interactive, 3-D maps of any landscape.

A team of researchers at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, are helping rethink the way ecologists collect data. They’re developing small unmanned copters, or drones, to study the fruits and flowers of the forest canopy. These pilot-less flying machines are being programmed to buzz over forests while snapping pictures.

The small drones climb up to about 100 meters with a point-and-shoot camera aimed at the ground while traveling along a preprogrammed path defined by GPS coordinates. It’s all part of a broad suite of tools Baltimore researchers are working on with the help of National Science foundation funding. It’s call Ecosynth.

Ecosynth is a suite of tools for mapping and measuring vegetation in 3-dimensions (3D) using off-the-shelf digital cameras and open-source computer vision software, from the ground or using low altitude hobbyist aircraft.  Here’s what it does:

  • Generate 3D and spectral imaging data useful for ecological research and applications.
  • Create low-cost portable 3D observation systems built on publicly available hardware and open-source software.
  • Be deployed by individual users, including researchers and citizen scientists, as-needed across sample areas, such as neighborhoods.

The goal is to allow anyone from a professional ecologist to a citizen scientist to generate an interactive, three-dimensional map of any landscape. Ever-cheaper drones with more accessible and user-friendly 3-D mapping along with visualization software has made this project possible.

See a demonstration of how Ecosynth works now and what’s planned for the future. NSF funding is also supporting Ecosynth’s attempt to develop a system that allows users to collect images with a smartphone or tablet in lieu of a copter. This could allow a user to walk through a forest, a park or a backyard and collect images that could be employed to generate a virtual version of anyone’s ecosystem.

Source: Camera-Equipped Autocopters Map Forest Treetops,” Scientific American