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The Use of UAVs (Unmanned Air Vehicles) in geology

Conference Paper · December 2016


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Javier Fernández-Lozano Gabriel Gutierrez-Alonso

Universidad de Cantabria Universidad de Salamanca


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The Use of UAVs (Unmanned Air Vehicles) in geology

Javier Fernández-Lozano1, Gabriel Gutiérrez-Alonso1,2

Geology Department. Facultad de Ciencias. University of Salamanca (37008 Salamanca, Spain)
Geology and Geography Department, Tomsk State University, Lenin Street 36 (Tomsk 634050, Russian

Emerging geomatic technologies for the capture, processing and display of three-dimensional data are of
great interest in the field of geology, because of the need to analyze information and parameters contained
in outcrops and landforms. The integration of these technologies such as airborne laser, multispectral
cameras or other geophysical devices in drones, provides a useful tool especially in remote, inaccessible
or highly vegetated areas. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) can reduce the accessibility problems,
tedious and complex time-consuming data acquisition and processing, as well as enables a reduction of
field campaign costs in comparison with traditional geological surveys. The emergence of low cost aircrafts
drives the development of detailed and high resolution works, being of special scientific and educational
interest. In addition, the three-dimensional models facilitate the dissemination of results to the general

Introducction gathering a large range of data which can be

UAVs are Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, also used separately or combined. (Caltabiano et
known by different acronyms in English al., 2005; Lin et al., 2011; Su and Chou,
(RPAS - Remotely Piloted Aircrafts). They 2015).
consist basically in a remotely operated These technologies provide a useful support
device which incorporates precise GPS and in research as well as make information
inertial systems that allow autonomous more accessible to other researchers or the
navigation and have been made accessible to general public through different tools, like
the general public in the last years. The reducing the distortion of photographic
technological advances have facilitated the images, map construction and building high
incorporation of the UAVs into many resolution 3D models (Fernández-Lozano
different scientific fields, like geodesy, and Gutiérrez-Alonso, 2016).
physics and geology (Thomson et al., 2007; UAVs types
Watts et al., 2012). The use of UAVs permits According to their structure there are two
the decrease in costs for the data acquisition main types of commercial drones that are
and the enhancement of the capacity for data regularly used:
processing to produce effectively large Fixed Wing UAVs which can reach long
volumes of information (Remondino et al., flight distances (up to 60 km), heights up to
2011; Carrivick et al., 2013; Hernandez- 500 m over the topographic surface and
Lopez et al., 2013). They have been also speeds between 50 and 70 km/h. They carry
important in gathering data from the sensors in a fixed position and are useful
inaccessible or much vegetated areas (Van in gathering data over large areas.
Blyenburgh, 1999). Rotating Wing UAVs are more limited in
The main use of UAVs nowadays is the terms of which flight distances (up to 10
acquisition of orthophotographies and high km), speed and autonomy (less than 30 min).
resolution 3D topographical digital models, They consist of 4 to 8 helix and are more
which are especially useful in geology. They versatile when attempting detailed surveys
can be used in different topics such as over small areas as their trajectory is easily
geomorphology paleontology, structural modified when needed and they can be kept
geology, geoheritage, etc. The capacity to still in a required position for the needed
ship different types of sensors allows
time. The sensors carried by this type of allowing the automated building of 3D
drones can be focused in any direction. models or to plot them on any flat surface
Sensors carried by UAVs with a given orientation. When the position
Most of the UAVs in the market carry a of control points, located directly in the
geolocalization system (GPS and/or studied object, is added the models are
GLONASS), inertial and radar control georeferenced and can be used as virtual
systems that allow stability and very precise objects. Resolution of the models depends
localization of the different sensors that can on the resolution of the images used (type of
be carried as well as the control and stability camera and distance to the object). Once the
of the device. The stability and localization point cloud is generated there are many
provided by these systems is fundamental to different tools for processing and filtering it
obtain reliable datasets from the different in order to extract data, enhance
sensors that can be launched with the UAV. visualization… There are many application
The most used sensors carried by UAVs are of this techniques to geology, for example,
those pointed to gather images from surveying in areas of difficult access, taking
different light bandwidths, mostly regular stratigraphic or structural measurements at
photographic pictures but also, infrared and inaccessible cliffs, making area or volume
hyper- or multi-spectral images. These measurements, mineral prospecting,
sensors are mainly used for surveying, 3D geological risk assessment, hydrology,
modeling, and agricultural monitoring. geological preservation of friable samples or
They can also carry other types of more outcrops, geological engineering,
specific, and usually sophisticated, sensors communicating geology to the general
that have different purposes: LiDAR (for public, etc. (Fernández-Lozano and
surveying, prospecting and air quality Gutiérrez-Alonso, 2016, 2016) (Figs. 2 and
monitoring purposes mainly); Geophisical 3). This technique is normally limited by the
sensors (mainly gravimetric and size of the model to be built and is not
electromagnetic); Chemical sensors (for suitable for very large prospects, where the
pollution or volcanic emissions monitoring); limitations from the UAVs autonomy and
new Radar and Sonar sensors (for surveying the computing capability may not be
and geologic, oceanographic or appropriate.
archaeological prospection). Other types of sensors provide specific
Geological applications capabilities to the UAVs for projects with
Characterizing the shape of geological other objectives. For example, LiDAR
outcrops or structures is a powerful tool sensors are more useful when dealing with
when doing scientific research or for high vegetated areas, as the tree-shrub cover
preservation issues. It is, from these two can be easily removed using different
pints of view where the importance of UAVs filtering algorithms. Emerging geophysical
in geology arise. Most of the uses nowadays sensors for UAVs (gravity and
in geology are related to the building of electromagnetism) are becoming more
accurate 3D models that allow customized available recently (despite their elevated
visualization of outcrops, allowing cost) and are being used in detailed
measurements and characterization of them geophysical prospecting, both for scientific
virtually with no need of visiting them and or economic purposes. UAVs with themal
also in the use of specialized sensors to and multi-spectral cameras are also common
gather other types of specific data. nowadays for projects involving soil studies
Regarding the construction of 3D models, and management, water pollution and other
the advent of the SfM (Structure from side topics, like agriculture, decay
Motion) photogrammetry has been crucial to characterization and preservation of
make accessible this technique. SfM is based architectural heritage buildings, forensic
in the acquisition of random digital images geology or geo-archaeology. Chemical and
of an object (or outcrop) with large overlaps atomic sensors are being used in order to
(Fig. 1). This technique discriminates, from monitor gas volcanic emissions, air pollution
the different images, correlated points (chemical and/or radioactive), etc.
(pixels or pixel groups) based on the gradient
or color intensity and locates them in space
Future of UAVs use Llumeres: apliación de los drones para el
From the said above, it can be foreseen that estudio geológico estructural 3D. XIX
UAVs are becoming an important tool to be Congreso Geológico de España. Huelva.
widespread used in the Earth Sciences in the Geo-Temas: 1-4.
near future and that they will bring large 4. Carrivick, J.L., Smith, M.W., Quincey,
benefits to us. Given the high rate of D.J. y Carver, S.J. (2013):
development of the UAVs and of the tools Developments in budget remote sensing
used to process the obtained data, it is not for the geosciences. Geology Today,
easy to know in detail which advantages may 29:138-143.
them provide in the near future in the way 5. Remondino, F., Barazzetti, L., Nex, F.,
Earth sciences progress, but there is no doubt Scaioni, M. y Sarazzi, D. (2011): UAV
that they will play an important role in the photogrammetry for mapping and 3d
ways geologists gather and display data. modeling–current status and future
Aknowledgements perspectives. International Archives of
Financial support for this work has been the Photogrammetry, Remote Sensing
provided by the Spanish Ministerio de and Spatial Information Sciences, 38,
Economía y Competitividad CGL2013- C22.
46061-P and through the “Programa de 6. Hernandez-Lopez, D., Felipe-Garcia,
Financiación de Grupos de Investigación del B., Gonzalez-Aguilera, D. y Arias-
Plan Estratégico de Investigación y Perez, B. (2013): An Automatic
Transferencia de Conocimiento de la Approach to UAV Flight Planning and
USAL”. Control for Photogrammetric
References Applications. Photogrammetric
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Fig 1.- 3D model built from SfM technique. a) Locations of the UAV from which the needs
images were taken and primary point cloud obtained. b) resulting 3D reconstruction of roman
gypsum mines from the model in (a).

Fig 2.- Different models obtained with LiDAR of gypsum roman mines in central Spain (a and b,
using different resolution and shading parameters). c) is the geological interpretation constructed
from the LiDAR based 3D model and field work.
Fig 3.- a) 3D model of the Llumeres fold (Asturias, northern Spain) with a draped color image.
b) Detailed digital model of the fold indicating the different types of information that can be
extracted from it.

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