UAV Sand Dunes

UAS Survey of the Great Sand Dunes

This entry is part 40 of 80 in the series Pangaea

The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is located in South Central Colorado and contains the tallest dunes in North America, spread across 30 square miles. It is an amazing destination, one that I first visited when I was 18 years old and have re-visited innumerable times since; I simply never tire of its beauty. So when I learned of a recent survey completed by a team of local UAS firms, I just had to share the story: not just because “the Dunes” are such a cool place (they are), but also because it illustrates important factors in the UAS arena.

The staff at the Sand Dunes National Park is required to track how the dunes shift year to year. Since vehicles are not allowed on the dunes and ground surveying on foot is virtually impossible, they turned to UAS Colorado for help. UAS Colorado is a non-profit business league, supporting the safe integration and use of unmanned aircraft systems in the state of Colorado. The project developed into a collaborative effort facilitated by UAS Colorado that also included Black Swift Technologies, a Boulder, Colorado UAS manufacturer; the National Park Service; and Wohnrade Civil Engineers, Inc. a Broomfield, Colorado civil engineering firm that incorporates UAS technology into their service offerings.

Wohnrade Civil Engineers became the first FAA-licensed service provider to use a UAS to successfully map a one-square-mile area of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. UAS data collection was executed on October 19, 2016 using the SwiftTrainer fixed-wing UAS developed by Black Swift Technologies. The resulting terrain data set will be compared to a 2011 airborne lidar acquisition prepared by the United States Geological Survey. For a detailed white paper (PDF) describing the project, visit Wohnrade’s website.

Two big takeaways from this. 1) UAS operators should add environmental analysis and/or monitoring to their list of possible opportunities, and 2) consider the benefits of joining a professional UAS organization in your area. Maybe you are curious about the possibilities of adding UAS to your toolkit, or perhaps you are seriously considering making the plunge into UAS and are overwhelmed with questions. Possibly, you have already acquired a UAS and are thinking “now what?”

In any of these situations, I would highly recommend joining a UAS group in your area. The educational, networking, and referral opportunities afforded by these associations make them a worthwhile investment. A good place to start is AUVSI that has 35 chapters across the U.S. You can also check out and other social media. Do note that there are many UAS groups dedicated to recreational as opposed to commercial pursuits.

Finally, if you’re planning a Colorado vacation and will be near Alamosa, make time to stop by the Sand Dunes National Park and Reserve. You won’t regret it!

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