Unmanned Aerial Vehicle helps student group with river restoration

A student research group with the department of geography at the University of Oregon is using a small remote control flying robot to snap photos of rivers and mark how they change over time.

The River Group, or “River Rats,” works with members of the geography department on river restoration and is comprised of five active student members, Aaron Zettler-Mann, a UO student associate with River Rats, said. The unmanned aerial vehicle that the group uses takes still images of rivers throughout Oregon.

The photos from the UAV can be used to create 3D models of the area. The DJI Phantom 3 Professional Quadcopter is controlled similar to a toy remote control helicopter, Zettler-Mann said.

“It’s kind of video game-like, it’s entertaining,” Zettler-Mann said.

The UAV is the newest tool the River Group has to collect data from rivers. In addition to UAVs, the group uses rafts, painter’s poles and heli-kites for their various projects, Mark Fonstad, a group adviser, said.

UAV’s have replaced much of the work done by the balloon-like heli-kite, as it offers more control and is easier to use, but has not fully replaced it as the UAV has a battery life of only 15 minutes, Fonstad said.

The device is owned and operated for recreational purposes by Zettler-Mann who decided to purchase it to share collected data with the group until they had the resources to use one of their own. Zettler-Mann was surprised to find the $1,300 UAV at a local Best Buy.

3D topographical maps can be produced from video and photos collected from UAVs and heli-kites. These 3D models of rivers can be used to see how rivers change and develop over time and can run simulations on heavy rain and floods, Fonstad said. Such a feat has been made possible by software and computer advances.

“In the past it would have taken equipment that would have taken tens of thousands [of dollars] to do exactly that. Today we can do it for free, or almost free,” Fonstad said.

Using UAV’s has become a reality for the River Group and many research groups on campus. As they have become easier to control the technology has become cheaper over the years, Fonstad said. What was $10,000 five years ago is $1,000 today.

In addition to mapping out the landscape of rivers, the River Group also monitors the effects of dams and water quality on rivers.

To see UAVs in action, Aerial Technology International is hosting a demonstration Nov. 11 at the quad between Knight Library and Lillis on campus from 12 to 3 p.m. More information is located here.

The group has visited six rivers so far this year and has no plans of slowing down any time soon, Fonstad said.

“UAVs are amazing. They offer cheaper more efficient ways to conduct sensing in any type of sensing work,” Christina Shintani, a student member of the River Group, said.

Examples of the group’s work are located here.

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Eric Schucht

Eric Schucht