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  • Adam Wells, California University of Pennsylvania

The Rise of Drones and Open Source Programming

The world we inhabit today is changing faster than it ever has before. We are riding a wave of technological advancements that can seem overwhelming at times. The cell phones we are using today can become obsolete next year and the hottest tech gadgets going from rare luxury items to commodities within months.The drone market is no exception to this pattern. According to Goldman Sachs there were only around 450,000 consumer drones sold in 2014. By 2020 there will be an estimated 7.8 million consumer drones sold on the market. In 2014 drones were mostly in the hands of government agencies, militaries, and corporations compared to today where anyone can purchase a drone at a moderate price. Drones are becoming easier to produce due to large strides in terms of innovation that often accompany a growing market. Another reason the drone market is growing is due to the easing of regulations on drone flight by the Federal Aviation Administration. There are still many rules and restrictions that come with drone flight but the process for obtaining a license and flight permission is gradually becoming more streamlined. (Goldman Sachs)

Image courtesy of iStock Photos

The rise of drones is noteworthy but what does it mean for organizations like YouthMappers? Drones were already commonplace within the large industries like construction and agriculture but now that there is accessibility that wasn’t there just a few short years ago the use of drones has vastly increased. (Goldman Sachs) With this kind of accessibility there has been and will continue to be a large increase in drone use for non-profit organizations, especially for organizations that focus on mapping like YouthMappers. What drones offer is a link between aerial photography and ground level photography that can prove extremely useful for mapping. The ability to be closer to the ground offers higher resolution and can nullify problems that arise with aerial and satellite imagery, problems like cloud cover and rapidly changing cityscapes. They offer a kind of flexibility not seen in satellite imagery that make them great tools for mapping dense urban areas and non-permanent settlements like refugee camps. (NobleCourt, 2016)

The benefits of drones lay mostly with the flexibility and flying aspect but the processing and storing of these images have brought up new challenges. Most drones require programming to take the several images usually required to capture a given area and turn them into a cohesive map that can be analyzed. There exists a variety of programs that can do this, albeit at a significant cost, programs like Pix4D. Programs like these offer a multitude of useful products and a clean interface but come with a large pricetag than makes then inaccessible for organizations with a small budget. There are alternatives that have risen and continue to gain traction like the open source software Open Drone Map. What the developers of Open Drone Map have done is take a lot of the tools found on larger, more expensive sites and offer them as an open source toolkit, free for anyone to use. This toolkit allows the user to take multiple images captured from a GPS coordinated drone flight and turn them into a variety of two-dimensional and three-dimensional products that allow analysis. Products like point clouds can be created to represent objects or terrain as a 3-dimensional model that can be georeferenced and analyzed. Two-dimensional products can be created as well, such as .tiff images, which can be used as base layers for mapping. (Openstreetmap US, 2017) There exists another program called Open Aerial Map which serves as a useful database for two-dimensional aerial images that can be produced from software like Open Drone Map. This site stores aerial imagery uploaded from drone users around the world and makes it open for public use. It is even possible to upload imagery found here directly into an OpenStreetMap editor. Open Aerial Map, together with Open Drone Map, allows one to turn raw imagery from a drone into a concise, georeferenced model that is stored, available for public mapping, and most importantly, free.

I practiced some mapping using imagery from Open Aerial Map to show how useful a tool like this can be for humanitarian mapping. I was able to take imagery of a port in Haiti taken by an Open Aerial Map user and directly upload it to Java Openstreetmap using the “Open With” feature on the site.

Figure 1. Open Aerial Map “Open In” feature

Here is the drone imagery taken by the Open Aerial User. The imagery will open automatically in Java Openstreetmap as long as the program is running and remote control is activated. The resolution is extremely clear compared to the ESRI imagery in Figure 3 of the same area.

Figure 2. Aerial imagery of a port in Jérémie Haiti taken by Open Aerial Map user POtentiel3.0.

Figure 3. ESRI Clarity satellite imagery of a port in Jérémie, Haiti

This imagery is completely compatible with all the features of both Openstreetmap Id editor and Java Openstreetmap.

Figure 4. Creating a building polygon over the Open Aerial Map imagery using Java Openstreetmap

The potential for drones has yet to be fully realized. Programs like Open Drone Map and Open Aerial Map showcase what some of that potential yields and what it will yield in the future with both programs still developing and improving. The growth of the drone industry will only help the growth of open source programs like these which in turn help humanitarian efforts. The potential of these programs is something to be excited about but if the trend of technological advancement has taught us anything, the tools and programs of tomorrow will exponentially improve as time goes on.

Adam Wells is a Junior at the California University of Pennsylvania. His course of study is Geography with a concentration in GIS and Emergency Management. He spent this past summer as a YouthMappers Virtual Intern with the USAID GeoCenter and is currently the Vice President of the California University YouthMappers chapter.

Works Cited

“Drones: Reporting for Work.” Goldman Sachs,

“OpenDroneMap.” YouTube, YouTube, 22 Oct. 2017,

“Pilot Running Drone At Sunset Light Free Space Stock Photo.” Royalty Free Water Drop Pictures, Images and Stock Photos - IStock,


“Drones for Humanitarian Mapping and the Role of OSM, Martin Noblecourt.” YouTube, YouTube, 28 Oct. 2016,

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