Mapping Big Projects Over Time: An Interview with Drone Pilot Jason Singleton

BY Zacc Dukowitz
18 April 2018

Recently we met commercial drone pilot Jason Singleton, who has over ten years of experience creating maps using GIS (Geographic Information System) data collected by drones and other means for private and governmental clients.

Right now Jason is working to map a big project for the city of Kalispell in northwest Montana. The project is a revitalization of a local park called Glacier Rail Park, and Jason has been documenting the progress of the city’s work using orthomosaic maps.

We sat down with Jason to learn more about the work he’s doing for the city of Kalispell, and how he is inputting maps made on different dates to show progress.

[By the way, to orient you as we talk through the Kalispell project, here is a link to a webpage featuring the maps Jason has been creating for the city, hosted on ArcGIS. All screenshots featured below come from this page.]

Begin Interview

What kind of work do you do with drones?

I’ve been working in GIS—Geographic Information Systems—for a long time, which essentially means mapping. I do this work through my business, GeoControl LLC.

All of my mapping is web-based, which means I can share the maps I make with anyone, anywhere, using a link to the hosted map.

Tell us about the Kalispell project. What are you doing, and how are maps being used?

In 2015 the city of Kalispell, Montana got a TIGER Grant, which provided the city with a lump sum of money to upgrade the downtown and help make improvements that would help the local economy.

The grant has primarily been put into a project to relocate a huge grain elevator to a new location in the Glacier Industrial Rail Park, to take out the railroad tracks that are currently there, put in walking and bike paths, and also open the area to new real estate opportunities. Basically, it’s a full revitalization of the entire downtown area. It’s a huge opportunity for the town, and a really positive thing.

The mapping project I’m working on was created by me and a few other people here in town. The idea was to offer transparency to the people living in Kalispell on how the project is progressing, and where the TIGER funds are being spent by creating maps of the site over time with data collected via drone.

We now have orthomosaic maps of the work site that show how it has developed over time, since the project began. Our goal at this point is to create a map every month, and in some instances twice a month, depending on how much progress there is to document at the site in a given period of time.

The project will take a few years to complete, and when we’re done the city will have a historic document of how it was completed.

[What is an orthomosaic map? An orthomosaic map is a detailed, accurate photo representation of an area, created out of many photos that have been stitched together and geometrically corrected (“orthorectified”) so that it is as accurate as a map.]

kalispell-gis-work-site-overview
A Map of the Work Site Hosted on ArcGIS

How do these maps work, and what kind of information do they contain?

We’ve created 3D maps at various dates, which can be viewed on the Glacier Rail Park website—you can scroll down to see a list of DroneDeploy links, located to the right of the video embedded on the page.

We’ve also created a layered map hosted on ArcGIS, which can be viewed here.

The layered map shows changes to the site over time—if you go to the map and click the layers icon (shown in the image below), you can see all of the maps we’ve created of the site as layers.

drone-mapping-layers

What’s great is that all of the stakeholders can view these maps, including personnel from construction companies, engineers, and the public. Engineers can even download the point cloud data and use it to create models instead of sending out surveyors in person.

February 7, 2018, Glacier Rail Park During Construction, Kalispell, Montana

In addition to showing progress over time, the layered map hosted on ArcGIS has several other features that help share information.

One feature is that you can send someone a link directly to a part of the map, so that you can show them exactly what you’re talking about. For example, here is a link to a zoomed-in portion of the ArcGIS map.

zoomed-in-arcgis-map
A Zoomed-In Portion of the ArcGIS Map of the Kalispell Work Site

You can also leave notes on these maps, so that you can share information with anyone who needs to know. These notes on the ArcGIS map are indicated by small yellow circles:

drone-map-gis

Basically, the ArcGIS is both a dynamic, working document of the site, and also a historic document, providing insight into how the site has changed over time. It’s an incredibly powerful tool for sharing information, and for providing transparency to those who simply want to know how things are progressing.

What is your process for creating one of these layered, interactive maps hosted on ArcGIS?

First I start with DroneDeploy, and create a flight plan.

dronedeploy-flight-plan
A Flight Plan in DroneDeploy

Regarding details on how I fly a mission, I fly a Phantom 4 pro at 300ft elevation using 75 percent overlap. I have found that 1 battery can map out 40 acres with these settings and have about 30% left on the battery.

One best practice is to spot check the images after you collect them on a laptop to ensure your photos haven’t been disrupted from bad connections to the remote. Also, you can fly the same perimeter immediately with different flight path directions to ensure high quality input. (Drone deploy will process all the photos, so you might as well fly twice to be sure.)

After I fly the mission and have all the data collected, I use DroneDeploy generate an orthomosaic map.

After the orthomosaic map has been generated in DroneDeploy, you have the option to generate an ArcGIS web tile layer.

[A web tile layer is just a way of adding a layer to your ArcGIS hosted map, like the layers shown earlier in this interview.]

When you click the button to generate a web tile layer in DroneDeploy, you get a very long URL.

arcgis-webtile-layer
ArcGIS Web Tile Layer Generated by DroneDeploy

After generating the web tile layer, you go to your ArcGIS site where you are hosting your map, and use that URL in the ArcGIS Online Web Tile Layer app to add the layer to an existing map, or to create a new map if you don’t have an existing one.

arcgis-layer

Using this app you can add layers to an existing map, just like we have on the ArcGIS hosted map, so that you can show progress on a project over time. This is perfect for the work we’re documenting in Kalispell, but it could also be used in all kinds of other scenarios.

For example, let’s say you had a contract with a farm to fly a mission over every three months for five years. You could create these mapping layers not just with the imagery—that is, not just with orthomosaic layers—but also with NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index), which is what farmers use to monitor their crops. These maps would help the farmer monitor the health of his crops, and they can be overlaid to show changes over time so that the farmer can click from one to the other to see what things looked like say, one year ago, or three months ago, and so on.

What software do you use, and how do you use it?

For GIS, I use ArcMap, which is the main product from E.S.R.I.

To create my orthomosaic map layers I use DroneDeploy, and then bring those images into ArcGIS Online, which hosts the actual map so that you can have a link to share with people.

I also use the ArcGIS Online Web Tile Layer app to help layer in maps.

[Want to learn more about drone mapping software? Check out our introductory guide here.]

What other kinds of projects have you done with drone mapping?

I’ve done web mapping for hiking trails, as well as some work in real estate.

I love the idea of doing vegetation analysis over time, and I’m hoping to create maps that can be used to monitor orchards or vineyards, which could help farmers find opportunities to improve their yields.

What drones do you fly, and how much battery life do you need for most missions?

I fly a Phantom 4 Pro, and I use an iPad to fly it. Most missions I fly are under 30 minutes and take just one battery, but I like to have a second battery on hand as a backup.

What do you need to do this kind of mapping work?

You have to have the GIS background, and you have to know how to use ArcGIS Online.

ArcGIS costs about $1,500 a year, which gives you the license and the ability to host maps online.

These are skills you can pick up. They take time and dedication to learn, and the field is always changing, but it’s something you can do if you decide to put in the work.

Zacc Dukowitz

Contributing Writer

Zacc Dukowitz is a contributing writer, and the former Director of Marketing for UAV Coach. A writer with professional experience in education technology and digital marketing, Zacc is passionate about reporting on the drone industry at a time when UAVs can help us live better lives. Zacc also holds the rank of nidan in Aikido, a Japanese martial art, and is a widely published fiction writer. Zacc has an MFA from the University of Florida and a BA from St. John's College. Follow @zaccdukowitz or check out zaccdukowitz.com to read his work.

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