Aerial / Photogrammetry / Technology Innovations Stories / Remote Sensing

UAS Maps the Matterhorn

January 2, 2014

SenseFly climbed a mountain—literally—to show the potential of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

A team from the Swiss drone company joined with partners from Pix4D, Drone Adventures and Mapbox to map the Matterhorn, a majestic peak in the Alps often referred to as “the most beautiful mountain.”

Using several eBee UAS to conduct 11 flights over a span of just a few hours, the SenseFly team collected more than 2,200 images to produce a 20-centimeter resolution 3D model of the Matterhorn. With the help of Pix4D and with eBee’s image-processing software Postflight Terra 3D-EB, the team created a high-definition model made of 300 million points that covered an area of more than 2,800 hectares (almost 11 square miles).

“The Matterhorn is one of the most iconic mountains of the Swiss Alps, and also one of the most imposing,” said Adam Klaptocz, R&D project manager for SenseFly. “Its steep faces, sharp ridges and snow-covered summit make it near impossible to access and map using traditional surveying tools.”

Surveying the Matterhorn has proved a difficult task. Giorgio Poretti took a Leica GPS500 to the summit in 1999 to confirm the altitude at 4,477.54 meters, according to SenseFly. In 2011, DLR researchers used optical satellite data to make a 3D model of the mountain with a maximum resolution of 50 centimeters.

But the SenseFly team built on those efforts thanks in large part to the eBee, a lightweight UAS. Team members carried the eBees, each of which weighed approximately 1.5 pounds (0.7 kilograms) with a wingspan of 38 inches (96 centimeters) to three separate locations. Team 1 put one eBee in a backpack and hiked it up to the summit, where the members tested the takeoff behavior at high altitude. From here, the eBee mapped the west face of the mountain and climbed to an altitude of 4,707 meters.

Meanwhile, members on Team 2 used three eBees to map the lower part of the Matterhorn. Six flights started at an altitude of 3,260 meters and mapped the north and east sides of the mountain. Four more flights took place on the mountain’s north face.

“UAS can access areas that cannot be accessed on foot and take aerial images in much higher resolution that what is available using satellites,” Klaptocz said. “The eBee is quick to deploy and can create maps in the matter of a few minutes or hours, thus providing up-to-the-minute imagery.”

The project illustrated many of the benefits of UAS. The eBees could work at high altitude in difficult terrain to create the 3D model.

 “The mapping of the Matterhorn was a showcase project that demonstrates the high quality, precision and sheer size of maps and 3D data sets that can be created in the matter of a few hours using UAS,” Klaptocz said. “This type of data was simply not possible to gather in the past.” 

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