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This Drone Gives Google Earth Tech To Public

Flying a fleet of autonomous drones off the top the Matterhorn, a company called SenseFly proves that soon anyone will be able to create satellite-quality maps, with a little help from a soaring robot or two.

When UAV manufacturer SenseFly wanted to show off their eBee drones, which are designed for aerial photography (and, so we hear, future commercial use), they decided to try something different: Throwing their vehicles off the top of the Matterhorn.

At the top of the famous Alpine mountain, a team from SenseFly and nonprofit Drone Adventures flew the eBees on multiple flights and fed camera and sensor data into 3-D imaging software. Once they were done, SenseFly had the first ever UAV-generated map of the Matterhorn.

Flying UAVs in mountainous areas, where retrieval can be difficult-to-impossible, comes with its own special challenges. Line-of-sight requirements and the need to send and receive constant data to the aircraft means operators have to stay in an area with clear communications—which meant climbing to the Matterhorn's summit. Five drones circled the base and lower portions of the mountain, while another set of UAVs systematically mapped the mountain's peak. And the Matterhorn, which straddles the border of Italy and Switzerland, is a massive mountain, which challenges the relatively modest battery life of most consumer drones. According to SenseFly, the eBee only has 45 minutes of battery life. As a result, the company had to fly their drones around the mountain on multiple flights.

So why would a company that manufactures what are essentially flying cameras decide to do a proof of concept project in the Swiss Alps? The answer for SenseFly is simple: It shows off the camera's capabilities to the National Geographic/Outside magazine-style demographic they're catering to.

The small eBee launches by being shaken and thrown in the air like a paper airplane, but it can withstand 45 mile-per-hour winds once in the air. That means that, unlike most UAVs which cannot conduct aerial photography on windy days, the eBee can be used in more rugged conditions. For SenseFly, there's obvious marketing appeal in taking a vehicle like that to the Alps.

But for aerial photographers (and the organizations that employ them), the real secret sauce is what these UAVs did once in the air. As shown in the video above, the drones—both the low-flying drones and the ones dropped from the top of the Matterhorn—autonomously created 2-D and 3-D maps of the mountain. Over 263.6 kilometers and a total of 340 minutes of flight time, the UAVs followed flightpaths generated by a piece of software that were either human-created or created entirely by algorithms. A total of 2,188 photos were taken, and an HD point-cloud with 3 million datapoints was generated.

And the best part? Data from the Matterhorn drone mapping project is now available to the public. Open source mapping outfit Mapbox, which is an aspiring rival to Google Maps, put data models and visualizations from the Matterhorn drone experiment online, including a stunning point cloud that's well worth checking out—even if you don't know what point clouds are.

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