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Drones give the economy a lift

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Photo by Hank Lohmeyer The drone, shown above at take-off, that was used to gather images for the Alexander Lake Lodge project is no bigger than a small, radio-controlled model airplane.

Drones have arrived in Delta County -- but they aren't the spying, harassing kind of drones that are reported on the national newscasts.

A Cedaredge company is helping bring the high-tech surveillance craft here for economic development uses that range from marketing promotion to improving agricultural yields.

DroneMapper is an enterprise of Jon-Pierre Stoermer and his dad, Pierre. They located their high-tech business north of Cedaredge in 2013. Jon-Pierre is the company's founder. Pierre tells the DCI that his own role "is in the areas of new business and marketing."

Simply put, DroneMapper uses proprietary software technology that processes visual information provided by drone-mounted camera images. From those images, the DroneMapper software creates a variety of economically valuable 3-D map models. Jon-Pierre developed the software the company uses and implemented it initially over a nine- to 12-month period with continuous processing improvements over the last three years.

An example of the kind of work DroneMapper does is a project done late September for Jan and Anna Chyc, owners of Alexander Lake Lodge. Jon-Pierre and his dad were working with a company from Centennial, CompassData and Jeff Southard, on the project. The two companies have partnered on other projects also.

As Southard flew a small, four-rotor drone 200 feet above the lodge with a familiar looking joystick controller, he collected images of the lodge grounds and terrain of a 15-acre-wide area. The images were displayed in real time and stored on Southard's iPad-like control panel. The drone he used was a Chinese-made model that costs around $3,000.

With the images then downloaded from the Southard's drone controller onto Jon-Pierre's UNIX-based computer, the DroneMapper software was put to work. It created 3-D maps of the lodge and surrounding area. Jan said he will use the maps in his online marketing to show potential customers exactly from ground level and in 3-D what kind of terrain and recreational opportunities Alexander Lake Lodge offers.

Pierre Stoermer explained that their map-making technique is termed "photogrammetry." He describes it as "the science and art of converting 2-D photos into 3-D maps that are used for precision measurement of length, area and volume, amongst other uses." DroneMapper technology is highly useful in various types of land projects and terrain analysis, he added.

Jon-Pierre explained that DroneMapper technology has "huge uses" in various agriculture applications.

For example, Pierre explained, "using near-infrared images, any crop can be evaluated for health or stress factors by computing the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI). A digital elevation model (DEM) is also produced that may be used for topography, watershed and above ground biomass analysis," i.e. measuring the amount of growth in a stand of vegetation.

The technology can actually produce a map that gives a picture of health of individual plants. DroneMapper is doing just that now on a mapping project for a 10,000-hectar palm oil plantation in Guatemala. Pierre explained, "The technology is capable of automated counting of plants (using computer vision) within a field and identification and geo-location of the plant with any health issues."

DroneMapper can also help predict yields.

Over large areas, the technology can help determine how water resources are being utilized. "The technology provides a snapshot in time of the topography of the area to determine how water sheds at that time. Imagery collection at a later time can provide how that topography has changed to characterize erosion, new water shed paths, and earth subsidence," Pierre explained.

That kind of information is of vital importance for construction projects in areas where weather conditions or soil types make infrastructure development and maintenance difficult. DroneMapper is helping with a project like that now, the Stoermers said. In Equador they are working on a survey along 85 kilometers of highway looking for developing threats from soils erosion.

"The digital elevation model (DEM) provides topography where one can determine the highest risk areas for land or mud slide based on slope and other environmental factors," Pierre explained.

The drones used by DroneMapper and flown by CompassData operate no higher than 200 feet, per FAA regulations, as a matter of aviation safety, Pierre notes.

According to the recent edition of Air & Space magazine, the FAA has allowed certain exemptions for higher drone flights, and those exemptions have allowed drones to play important roles in surveying various types of tower structures; in botany surveys; and in assisting search and rescue operations.

CompassData's Southard piloted two drones during work with DroneMapper here last month. Following the survey of Alexander Lake Lodge, he and the DroneMapper team traveled to another location in the county. There, Southard put his really high tech tool kit to work -- a $50,000 Trimble UX5 drone. It was used for gathering images that DroneMapper would then turn into a 3-D map analysis of natural resources. Such information is critically important for economic managers in allocating available resources and matching them to economic conditions, and for other uses also.

Southard's rail-launched Trimble UX5 craft is constructed of a rigid polyurethane foam air frame that incorporates elements of carbon fiber at various stress points. It takes only a short, clear area to launch the UX5. It weighs just 5.5 pounds and lands on its skid plate

Drones will continue to serve other economically valuable uses here and in other areas when used with the computing imaging analysis and economic insights provided by the DroneMapper software technology.

Photo by Hank Lohmeyer As Jeff Southard pilots CompassData’s DJI Inspire drone 200 feet above Alexander Lake Lodge, he controls it with a familiar hand held joystick and monitors flight and camera information in real time via the controller mounted pad device (below).
Image courtesy of DroneMapper Shown is a screenshot image overlaid on Google Earth that is being developed from a drone photographic survey done on Sept. 22. The image represents a step in the 3-D image processing that DroneMapper can do.
Following the drone overflight and photo survey of Alexander Lake Lodge, images are downloaded via memory chip to DroneMapper’s UNIX-based computer.
Photo by Hank Lohmeyer Southard displays his super eye in the sky — a Trimble UX5 drone. During work with DroneMapper in Delta County last month, the $50,000 high-tech craft was used for image gathering that will provide economic managers with important information about natural resources in the county.
Shown inside the lodge during initial processing of the visual images are, from left, DroneMapper software developer and principal Jon-Pierre Stoermer of Cedaredge; Jan Chyc, Alexander Lake Lodge co-owner; and Jeff Southard, drone pilot, with CompassData of Centennial. Image processing is further enhanced at the DroneMapper headquarters.
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