Landmark Drone Mapping Mission Conducted in Great Sand Dunes National Park

UAS Colorado is pleased to announce the completion of an innovative mapping project using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) within the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in south central Colorado. This project was a collaborative effort facilitated by UAS Colorado that also included Black Swift Technologies (BST), the National Park Service (NPS), and Wohnrade Civil Engineers, Inc. (WCE).

Working in conjunction with NPS park staff, the goal of this project was to develop precision mapping approaches using high-fidelity remote sensing to monitor change detection, measure dune height in the vicinity of the Star Dune, and to visualize and document the natural resources that the NPS is responsible for protecting.

For this project, Wohnrade Civil Engineers became the first FAA-licensed service provider to use a UAS to successfully map a 1 square mile (2.58 sq km) area of the Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve. The UAS data collection was performed on October 19, 2016 using the SwiftTrainer fixed-wing drone developed by Black Swift Technologies. The resulting terrain data set will be compared to a 2011 airborne LiDAR acquisition prepared by the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

For additional technical details about this historic UAS mapping project, please navigate to . Interested persons are welcome to download project data examples, which include an orthomosaic image and derived elevation contours.

UAS Colorado ( a non-profit business league, committed to promoting and improving the commercial drone industry in Colorado, particularly supporting the safe integration and use of unmanned aircraft systems throughout the state for the benefit of the public.

Black Swift Technologies ( is an engineering firm based in Boulder, Colorado specializing in the development of next generation small unmanned aircraft platforms and technologies.

Wohnrade Civil Engineers ( of Broomfield, Colorado, provides a broad range of professional engineering services to public and private sector clients in Colorado, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Nebraska since 2002.

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The Great Sand Dunes National Park is a very unique environment, making aerial data collection technically challenging. Several challenges were posed to the UAS team for all phases of the mission. A combined total of seven surveyed ground control points (GCPs) and check points (CPs) were set by a two man crew from Wohnrade Civil Engineers on October 18, 2016. The area of interest (AOI) was inaccessible by vehicle requiring travel by foot, which consequently meant the establishment of the seven GCPs and collection of their individual GPS x,y and z coordinates took approximately 8 hours. Flight planning was similarly difficult given one condition of the NPS Scientific Research and Collecting Permit was the UAS launch and landing site be located outside of the Great Sand Dunes National Park boundary. Another difficulty arose due to the mapping AOI contained elevation variations of up to 750ft (229m). This required the aircraft to track steep flight angles to maintain a uniform ground sample distance.

In spite of the long transit to the 1-square mile AOI, the mapping team was able to finish the mission in two flights, collecting 1,755 images in only 2 hours and 30 minutes on site. The raw images were geo-tagged using flight data from the UAS and fed through a photogrammetric process to generate the required data products. First, each image was rectified and combined to produce an orthomosaic map over the AOI, providing an aerial view of the features of each dune at nearly 1 inch (3cm) per pixel resolution. Second, overlapping features across images were used to derive a three-dimensional point cloud of the AOI topography. This data set is extremely comprehensive and includes over 145 million points, or close to one point for every 1.5 square inches on the ground.

Wohnrade Civil Engineers

Wohnrade Civil Engineers, Inc. (WCE) is an FAA Section 333 Exemption Holder, as well as an FAA Part 107 Certified Operator. WCE has been performing aerial data collections for the past eighteen months, using the SwiftTrainer UAS platform (developed by Black Swift Technologies). WCE makes use of the SwiftTrainer, as well as our DJI Inspire 1, to perform data collections, which are then processed using photogrammetry. WCE is at the forefront of delivering precision UAS mapping products in a variety of digital formats, which are then used for civil engineering design.

WCE has developed a unique in-house workflow that includes: UAS mission planning; UAS field data collection; Data processing using photogrammetry; Preparation of precision mapping products. All products are generated using surveyed ground control points (GCPs), and are georeferenced in a real world coordinate system. Our deliverables generally include: High-resolution orthomosaic image (2.5 to 3 cm/pixel GSD); Digital elevation model (DEM); Digital point cloud; 3D model; Digital terrain model (DTM) with 1-foot contours. All of these products are accurate enough to be used for civil engineering design.

WCE has demonstrated that the use of UAS to generate reliable and precise ground surface models is very cost effective when compared to traditional ground and aerial surveys. WCE has accumulated a database for all of our projects, which includes actual costs for UAS aerial mapping versus traditional ground surveying. WCE is able to save our clients roughly 40\% on average. The cost savings that can be achieved varies widely, depending on the size of the project and type of terrain, and relates directly to the field collection time. In most cases, a UAS platform is able to collect data in less than an hour, as compared to traditional ground survey methods, which take days.

Black Swift Technologies

Black Swift Technologies (BST) is based in Boulder, CO and has been in operation since 2011. BST produces our own line of customizable autopilots, ground stations and supporting avionics. This affords control of the critical parts of our products, including the design of all electronics for both the avionics and ground systems, software, mechanical assembly, along with the QC process for all outgoing systems. All UAS sold by BST are built upon the SwiftCore FMS that includes the autopilot, ground station, user interface, and support electronics. Unlike many competing systems that rely on open-source and low-quality avionics, BST is able to guarantee quality, robustness, and supply of the most critical components of our systems.

Furthermore, BST uniquely couples avionics expertise with consulting services, and has delivered products and engineering services to many government entities including NASA, NOAA, various universities along with commercial sales to end-users and aircraft integrators. Concurrently, it offers consulting services for customers attempting to navigate the ever-dynamic and often confusing application process for legal access to airspace as granted by the Federal Aviation Administration through Certificates of Authorization (COAs), Section 333 exemptions, and part 107. —

Wohnrade Civil Engineers is proud to be the first FAA licensed operator to use an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to successfully map a 1-square mile area of the Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve. The milestone project will give research staff at the Park meaningful data for monitoring change detection within the dunefield, and to quantify, visualize and interpret resources it is charged with protecting. The research staff is very pleased with the results, stating, “It is definitely the best aerial imagery of the dunes to date!”, and “The accuracy numbers from your survey are impressive.” The project succeeded in illustrating the incredible capabilities of UAVs in science, engineering, and precision mapping.

“Black Swift Technologies was excited to be a part of this landmark effort, and were excited to face the challenges of the project with our industry leading SwiftTrainer aircraft. This required operations at altitudes of up to 9000′ altitude MSL and gathering data over an area of interest more than 5 miles from the launch and recovery site, something that exceeds the operational limits of most small drones. It was great working with UAS Colorado and Wohnrade Civil Engineers to continue to use our products and skill set to provide a robust mapping solution for commercial needs.”

— Jack Elston, Ph.D., CEO Black Swift Technologies

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