Skyrocketing drone usage leads WMU to offer consulting service

Contact: Jeanne Baron

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—There's no denying the popularity of consumer drones. These off-the-shelf unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, can be seen everywhere from backyards to the boondocks. They've become important tools for many cost-conscious individuals and organizations, but specialized needs can make it difficult to know how to put them to effective use.

Western Michigan University has stepped in to fill the equipment and expertise gap by offering consultants who provide the necessary drones, cameras and sensors to get the job done, then collect the necessary data and interpret it for clients.

Want to find out where a building is losing most of its heat? Wondering if parts of a field are too dry for a certain crop? Ready to sell some mounds of gravel but don't know the volume of material that's in each mound?

Emerson and Mathews holding examples of the drones at their disposal.

Drs. Charles Jay Emerson (left) and Adam Mathews in WMU's W.E. Upjohn Center for the Study of Geographical Change.

Professor Charles Jay Emerson and Assistant Professor Adam Mathews are the ones to contact. The two Department of Geography faculty members have long used drones in their courses and research and now also serve as UAV consultants on a contract basis through WMU's W.E. Upjohn Center for the Study of Geographical Change.

"We're open for business and have access to the geography department's UAV fleet," Emerson says of the new center service that began this spring. "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."

Consulting services

The Upjohn Center's portfolio of UAV products and services takes advantage of the Department of Geography'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.

Emerson says a typical local single-day project involving five hours of data collection and five hours of data processing would run about $2,300. Services and products available include:

  • Thermal images
  • Three-dimensional models
  • Digital surface elevation models
  • High-resolution digital orthophoto mosaics
  • Vegetation maps for precision agriculture
  • Four kilobyte video and up to 20 megapixel still area images for facilities inspection

No longer a flight of fancy

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

Much of the work being done today with drones was traditionally 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 costly, sometimes prohibitively, and satellites often do not provide the level of detail needed for small area analyses. With drones, we have a very affordable, relatively easy-to-use platform that we can send up ourselves and get really detailed information," Mathews explains.

"In terms of aerial photography resolution, we usually only have access to satellites that return pictures where a single pixel represents a few meters to a few kilometers. For piloted aircraft, it's usually going to be a few meters or maybe a few feet per pixel. But drones fly so low to the ground that for the most part, a single pixel represents a few centimeters.

"That's important," he says, "because despite the increased use of lidar and other remote sensing methods, most of the mapping being done with these vehicles is with off-the-shelf digital cameras. Nothing too advanced or expensive."

Rising to the occasion

This multispectral sensor is normally carried on the geography department's fixed-wing drone.

Emerson says 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 particular expertise in applications related to precision agriculture, says 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 things like where water flows during high rainfall events, or for indicating which areas might need more or less irrigation, fertilizer, herbicides or pesticides.

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

"Take cell phone towers. 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," he says.

"It has a ground base station over a known location and broadcasts to the drone, so it improves the drone's ability to stand still, and it's very high-precision GPS. You can fly up there and make a movie of what you see or take stills of it."

WMU's Upjohn Center

The W.E. Upjohn Center for the Study of Geographical Change is a world-class facility in Welborn Hall for digitizing large format originals at very high resolutions to preserve and protect historic maps, documents, books and even artwork. It also provides a wide range of cartographic products and services, including custom maps for the general public and geochange maps, which combine topographical maps from older time periods with modern aerial photos to show how areas around the globe have changed.

The Upjohn Center began as a Groundwater Education in Michigan Center in the early 1990s and has evolved into a geographic information systems research facility with specialties in conversion of paper data to geographic information system-ready georeferenced images and geodatabases. All products are GIS ready, web enabled, and tablet and phone compatible. The center is located in Welborn Hall and has 7,000 square feet of monitored, electronically secured, climate-controlled space that is equipped with a dry-fire suppression archive.

For more information about the UAV consultancy, contact Kathleen Baker, director of the Upjohn Center, at or (269) 387-3364. Details about the center are available online.

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.

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