Benefits of Community Engagement In Partnership With Drones and Geospatial Technologies

by Stephen Sorenson
Geospatial Intelligence Analysis Instructor
Northland Community and Technical College
Co-Principal Investigator – UAS and GIT Integration
Into Technical Education
National Science Foundation ATE Program
Published in Midwest Flyer – August/September 2019 issue

Currently, Northland Community and Technical College’s (NCTC) Aerospace Program is working with our Local Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) office on a Board of Water and Soil Resource (BWSR) grant to conduct drainage ditch inventory and inspection of the 58 ditches in Pennington County, Minnesota. The project is currently in its second year of a three-year project. As a part of this initiative, NCTC is helping to investigate new technology use, such as Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR), to produce precise three-dimensional imaging for detecting soil erosion trends and other key features relating to ditch maintenance. The research we have conducted has allowed us to provide presentations that will help guide SWCD decisions in ditch maintenance prioritization and acquisition of new technology to support these and future applications.

SWCD was interested in utilizing Small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS) to gather imagery of the status of the county ditches and develop a historical database for identification and prioritization of ditch maintenance issues. Gathering this information would be very labor and time intensive, while utilizing sUAS imagery would be much more efficient than physical inspection of each of the ditches.

Collaborating with community partners provides beneficial outcomes for all involved. Identifying the needs of the community partner, and being able to assist or address those needs through grant or classroom involvement, provides not only products for the partner, but data and material for education and development.

Partnering For Success

Thanks to the availability of multiple sUAS platforms and sensors thru NCTC, student and staff availability to fly the necessary subject areas, and locational information and data from SWCD, we were able to bring together a working solution to gather the necessary information to begin to produce the desired products to include orthomosaics, raster layers, contour layers, LiDAR and photogrammetric imagery. As we were developing the project, certain aspects would lead to opportunities and uses in our Imagery Analysis, Practical Imagery Applications, Geospatial Collection Management, Geospatial Analysis, Geospatial Intelligence Operations and Geospatial Interoperability classes.

Refinement of Curriculum

In the spring of 2018, NCTC started including drone flights, whenever possible, into the Imagery and Geospatial classes to provide students with a hands-on experience and understanding of how their data and imagery was obtained. The imagery captured by our classes, utilizing the same imagery and data requirements within the BWSR grant, was incorporated into the curriculum, along with the geospatial products developed, to build on the capstone projects for those classes.   

In the GEOINT Operations class, the full spectrum of operations from the request to the completed report is covered. Utilizing the BWSR grant requirements, the customer’s request was converted into a mission statement. The mission statement was then used to develop a mission plan to include a concept of operations, identification of supporting elements, coordination instructions, supporting elements, and means of communication. Once the collection plan was developed, the class executed the plan by collecting (flying a ditch), processing (creating an orthomosaic image), and analyzing the information (identifying problem areas and comparing to historical imagery). This was then assembled into a geospatial project in ArcGIS Pro for the customer as the capstone project for the class.

In the analysis of images, we discovered a need to import images from other systems. This in turn led to development of how to import certain GIS products in the interoperability class. Understanding how to move products from one system to another enables the addition of other available information from open sources (internet), which can then be gathered and included in operations and open source projects.

An example of this would be information from a smart phone that can be imported into a GIS system, like Google Earth, and then exported in a different file format and imported into another GIS system, such as ArcGIS. From there it can be exported and then imported into a variety of other GIS systems.

The class uses the vast availability of open source information and filters with the critical thinking, validation, and ethics developed in the other classes. Each of these, and many other elements, are then included in the curriculum to build upon each other and produce a better product for the customer. In this way, the local land owner can take an image of the ditch on their property with their cell phone, import that to a Geographic Information System (GIS) like Google Earth, save that image layer and send it to SWCD. The SWCD can then import that image into another GIS, like ArcGIS, and begin to analyze the imagery utilizing the tools available in ArcGIS.

Delivering the Product to the Customer

The end result of the interaction between the classes is the development and production of a more versatile and valuable product for the customer. Databases can be developed to not only hold historical imagery and data, but also integrate new and updated information to facilitate a more up to date geospatial representation of the environment. Instead of a static power point presentation, you can be provided with an interactive, comprehensive online geospatial presentation that the customer cannot only utilize and reference, but can also enhance and build upon for the future.   •   1-800-959-6282


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