Integrating unmanned aerial systems and LSPIV for rapid, cost-effective stream gauging

Quinn W. Lewis, Evan M. Lindroth, Bruce L. Rhoads

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Quantifying flow in rivers is fundamental to assessments of water supply, water quality, ecological conditions, hydrological responses to storm events, and geomorphological processes. Image-based surface velocity measurements have shown promise in extending the range of discharge conditions that can be measured in the field. The use of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) in image-based measurements of surface velocities has the potential to expand applications of this method. Thus far, few investigations have assessed this potential by evaluating the accuracy and repeatability of discharge measurements using surface velocities obtained from UAS. This study uses large-scale particle image velocimetry (LSPIV) derived from videos captured by cameras on a UAS and a fixed tripod to obtain discharge measurements at ten different stream locations in Illinois, USA. Discharge values are compared to reference values measured by an acoustic Doppler current profiler, a propeller meter, and established stream gauges. The results demonstrate the effects of UAS flight height, camera steadiness and leveling accuracy, video sampling frequency, and LSPIV interrogation area size on surface velocities, and show that the mean difference between fixed and UAS cameras is less than 10%. Differences between LSPIV-derived and reference discharge values are generally less than 20%, not systematically low or high, and not related to site parameters like channel width or depth, indicating that results are relatively insensitive to camera setup and image processing parameters typically required of LSPIV. The results also show that standard velocity indices (between 0.85 and 0.9) recommended for converting surface velocities to depth-averaged velocities yield reasonable discharge estimates, but are best calibrated at specific sites. The study recommends a basic methodology for LSPIV discharge measurements using UAS that is rapid, cost-efficient, and does not require major preparatory work at a measurement location, pre- and post-processing of imagery, or extensive background in image analysis and PIV.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)230-246
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Hydrology
StatePublished - May 2018


  • River discharge
  • Stream gauging
  • UAS

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology

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