We’re on track for summer

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Discussions are ongoing about the viability of summer travel given the pandemic. However, as Charlie has blogged recently, we are “acting as if”. As such, we are trying to maintain our original calendar.

Lo and behold, we have:

Imagine a “You are here” arrow by Spring 1

Here’s the full breakdown of that schedule and our progress:

Our plan for the fall was to find and test alternative UAV’s. This proved prudent, as the federal government banned DJI craft late last year. We are happy with both the Parrot and the Skydio craft, for different reasons which we’ll undoubtedly cover here on this blog in the future.

December and January, which were effectively a long winter break for a subset of us, were dedicated to testing the craft, capturing initial video, and possibly beginning development. This was a success as well. Additionally we have begun spinning up a more sophisticated web presence for the stories we’re telling – changes we will be prepared to publish soon.

We’ve now started the calendar for the spring, term 1 of 2. We are moving into scaling up our operation of the craft and developing software to automate that work. It’s a tough problem but one we can solve in the time we have.

We’re optimistic about our ability to meet the moment. If the world continues to make progress on COVID-19, we should be in shape to have a successful research trip.

Cross-posted to craigearley.com

The year in review

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For the first two months of 2020 we planned and worked as though we would be working in Iceland during June; once we realized that the Covid-19 pandemic would prevent that, and much else, we re-organized ourselves and our work in the new normal. This included accommodating people working remotely from a wide range of timezones and reprioritizing tasks based on a new timetable. Whenever possible we tried to make lemonade, for instance we were able to re-organize our data storage structures, something we could not have done without the long timeline available this past year. Here is a summary of the other ground we have covered, future posts will have more details about each of these bits.

Craft research – One of the challenges of doing system integration in this space is the fast pace at which the hardware is evolving. We refined our requirements and resurveyed the market, ultimately deciding to add the Parrott Anafi and the Skydio 2 to our kit. In addition to craft-mounted multi-spectral lens we are also working with a MapIR NIR equipped lightweight camera which we will use as payload on the Anafi.

The Anafi with the MapIR camera payload. Image credit Charlie Peck.

ODM configurations – With time and computational resources we have been able to read and experiment with the ODM options that apply to our analysis workflow, and there are lots of them.

GIS integration – Our workflow now incorporates QGIS, this gives us the ability to use the powerful georeferencing plugin to accurately merge each of the data layers (sensor modes).

Storytelling – For many years we have been taking a fairly ad-hoc and often random approach to getting the word out about our work. We realized that we could now take the time to make a more organized run at storytelling, so a few of us have.

Planning for 2021 – We are now deep into the logistical and science planning for the 2021 field season, as I write this in mid-January we are working with the College and our colleagues in Iceland to plan our time there during June. One of our field sites, the Skalanes Nature Preserve, has experienced a number of mudslides this winter, destroying parts of Seydisfjordur and making travel along the fjord very difficult.

View to the North over the Eider colony at Skalanes. Image credit Charlie Peck.

And we’re off, again, hopefully…

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Today is the official re-start of our National Geographic Society supported near-Earth survey work in Iceland (Earlham’s press release). Like many other scientists we have been unable to travel to field sites since the onset of the pandemic, the National Geographic graciously gave us a one year deferral for our grant, and now we are beginning to plan towards working in Iceland this coming June. Our project is based on commonly available UAV technology, our group is designing and building inexpensive, open, software and hardware systems for domain scientists to easily measure a variety of Earth surface parameters. Our first two disciplines are archaeology and sustainability, both of which depend on a variety of sensing modes. A few details about the gear and workflows are below, and in subsequent posts we will describe them in more depth.

Our group is a collection of students, faculty, and professionals primarily based at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana and at Skalanes, outside of Seydisfjordur, Iceland. Together we cover archaeology, biology, computer science, geography, storytelling, and sustainability. The faculty and professionals are: Emmett Smith, Craig Earley, Rannveig Thorhallsdottir, Olafur Petersun, and Charlie Peck (me). The students we are currently working with are: Dung (Kate) Nguyen, Tamara Blagojevic, Davit Kvartskhava, Pyone Win, and Yujeong Lee. Over the next year you will learn more about all of us as we write posts that describe the specific aspects of the project which we focus on. For the most part we fancy ourselves as generalists, but in reality each of us brings lots of domain knowledge and focus to our work where it is blended into solutions.

Our goal for this cycle is to make it easier and cheaper for archaeologists to locate subterranean points of interest within a known or suspected cultural activity area, and for environmental scientists to quickly survey large areas for e.g. invasive species measurement or erosion. Our approach combines three relatively recent advances in drone, sensor, and machine learning technologies. 

1) Consumer grade drones capable of doing basic field science tasks, at accessible costs. 
2) Significant growth in the types of sensors available, and at low cost. 
3) Powerful, relatively easy to deploy open source machine learning libraries, which can extract deep patterns from large, noisy, multidimensional data sets. 

These three trends can support an approach to subterranean feature detection that is faster, cheaper, and more accessible to a wider range of practitioners than existing methods. Rather than depending on a single very sensitive, often expensive and complicated sensor to detect subterranean features, e.g. satellite or aircraft based LiDAR; our Terrestrial Mapping Platform (TMP) makes it possible to do ground based surveys, in a combination of sensor modes, and then use machine learning algorithms to combine those data sets into a single analysis to detect subterranean anthropogenic features and characterize surface vegetation.

Lunch during a day of soil sampling and aerial surveying at Sólheimajökull, an outlet glacier of the Mýrdalsjökull icecap on the southern coast of Iceland, June 2019. Image credit Porter Libby.

Preliminary notes on the Parrot Anafi

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After three extremely short flights, these are my notes about the Parrot Anafi drone.

We’re experimenting with different UAV’s as part of the Iceland terrestrial surveying program (we’re being optimistic about travel in 2021…). These are some notes with my initial observations.

This is based on the base case: taking the craft out, taking off, flying for at most a few minutes, and touching back down. As such, don’t take a single word of this as gospel – it’s just preliminary opinions for the historical record. 🙂

Short version of the review: holy portability! One thing I don’t like about the DJI Phantoms is that they are so heavy (both the craft and the RC-tablet unit). If it’s a pain here on-campus, where trips are short, I imagine it’s a pain in the field. The Anafi is ludicrously lightweight and doesn’t feel like a chore to carry around.

Video quality on the built-in camera is fantastic (4K etc.).

It’s not a perfectly seamless integration with our existing workflows. Within our group, for example, we usually use tablets, which are handy for their big screens. The Anafi seems built around the assumption of a phone. That’s true all the way down to the RC unit being designed to accommodate a phone but not a tablet. That’s different, but if we can only get this app for phones I am not necessarily sad about it.

There are many X factors I haven’t yet been thorough enough to review. For example: battery life, stability in breezes (heavy winds make most UAV’s hard to use), and the software/developer ecosystem.

These have been my extremely preliminary notes about the Parrot Anafi. It’s not even close to a comprehensive evaluation of everything we care about. Still, those usability factors are important if this is going to scale and be useful for others. So for now, I’m impressed.

This is a cross-post from Craig Earley’s personal website.