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  • Colin J. Fischer

Mapping with Drones. Before it was Cool.

Updated: Apr 2, 2020

This article was originally posted on Linkedin in 2017

In December of last year, I was privileged to be invited to visit Elevated Element, a drone-based mapping company; and it was fun to look around at the new technology and the leaps and bounds that have taken place in the last several years. 

I’m only 30, but in this area I already felt a bit like an old-timer. I was asked to manage a small NASA program in 2010 that was experimenting with drone-based mapping. This was before the proliferation of quadcopters, and drones themselves were still largely the domain of the military. US Customs had bought a couple Predator-Bs, and NASA had done so as well (re-naming it “Ikhana”). At the time, NASA was also interested in replacing their aging P-3 or DC-3 aircraft with drones in the future in order to lessen the cost and environmental impact of the seasonal Operation: Ice Bridge missions. 

One of the primary instruments that the Operation: Ice Bridge team uses is called the Airborne Topographic Mapper, or ATM. ATM is a LiDAR system that is installed on the P-3 Orion. Its approximately 300 lbs and requires a human-in-the-loop for control. Our mission was to create a new type of LiDAR system that could gather scientifically-valid information and fly on a small UAV. This system was dubbed “MiniATM” in both a nod to the original ATM’s smaller. Creative, right?

As a point of clarification, when we say "small UAV", we meant a 300-pound drone called a Viking 300. By today’s standards, the Viking 300 is a beast, but just seven years ago, this was considered a small drone. There was also no "Part 107" or any drone regulations of any kind, and we needed the special airspace around Wallops Island in order to stay legal to fly.

Based on the limitations of the platform and the technology we were aiming to ‘replace’, we started to generate requirements. These requirements were to drive the overall design. We needed to find the lightest LiDAR we could, couple it with the best compromise for weight and accuracy inertial measurement unit (IMU) and have some small and ruggedized method of data collection and storage. We also needed to have enough processing power to run a basic AI. This AI needed to coordinate the starting sequence of the LiDAR and the IMU, and ensure that both systems were working during the flight. This removed the human-in-the-loop requirement. 

All of this had to fit in a package that weighed 30 pounds or, desirably, less.

The further we started to research the capabilities of the day, we started to realize that our 30-pound limit wasn’t going to work. The smallest LiDAR we could find at the time that had reasonable accuracy was already 20 pounds. When combined with our IMU and ruggedized computer, we were right at the 30 pound limit. We still had to account for cabling and housing of the units inside a payload pod that would be slung beneath the aircraft. Keep in mind - this was the smallest we could make it. The final product was the result of compromising among the technological limits, required accuracy, and weight.

Testing and integration of the system took place over the spring and summer of 2011. Because we were shooting a Class III Eye-Safe laser, that minimized the amount of permits we needed, which ultimately cut down on our cost.  During this ground testing, we were able to test and verify the complete system and develop our operations procedures.

In the fall of 2011 we were able to fly the unit several times over Wallops Island, Virginia, on the Viking 300 UAV. After some initial hiccups, we were able to generate full maps of the island. It was considered a success. The team and I won the NASA Peer Award for Science Achievement that year, and we were already talking about spin-offs and improvements to bring down the total weight of the unit to the mythical 30-pounds. Ultimately, those spin offs and follow ons were cancelled due to budgets and shifting agency priorities. I was re-assigned as a systems engineer to the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerators program with JPL, but was able to remain active in championing MiniATM for Earth-science research proposals until I left NASA in 2014 for flight school. 

Fully integrated LiDAR systems have since been developed exclusively for drones. Reigl USA, the manufacturer of the LiDAR we used, has a system that was designed specifically for multi-copter drones. It betters the capabilities of the LiDAR we were using. It’s also significantly smaller and lighter. IMUs, too, have gotten smaller and more capable. I have little doubt that, given the advancements in these combined technologies, our same team could build a system that not only rivals the capabilities of the 300 pound system we were aiming to replace, but we could do it on a system that weighs less than 15 pounds and fly it on a multi-copter under the new Part 107 rules. 

MiniATM is still flying. But, it isn’t flying on drones. Instead, it is being used by NASA on contracted Twin Otters in Colorado. It flies several times a year on mapping and environmental data collection missions. Though it has been out-paced by advancements in technology, it continues to be useful to scientists in several universities across the country. 

Visiting Elevated Element in December hit home a point I hadn't thought about, but I am now incredibly proud of. MiniATM may not have been the first, but it was certainly among the first tests of drone-based aerial mapping. In seven years, that concept has gone from a test flight, or experiment, into a growing global industry worth billions. 

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