Using Commercial Digital Cameras and Structure-for-Motion Software to Map Snow Cover Depth from Small Aircraft

Tuesday, 16 December 2014: 8:02 AM
Matthew Sturm, Matt Nolan and Christopher F Larsen, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK, United States
A long-standing goal in snow hydrology has been to map snow cover in detail, either mapping snow depth or snow water equivalent (SWE) with sub-meter resolution. Airborne LiDAR and air photogrammetry have been used successfully for this purpose, but both require significant investments in equipment and substantial processing effort. Here we detail a relatively inexpensive and simple airborne photogrammetric technique that can be used to measure snow depth. The main airborne hardware consists of a consumer-grade digital camera attached to a survey-quality, dual-frequency GPS. Photogrammetric processing is done using commercially available Structure from Motion (SfM) software that does not require ground control points. Digital elevation models (DEMs) are made from snow-free acquisitions in the summer and snow-covered acquisitions in winter, and the maps are then differenced to arrive at snow thickness. We tested the accuracy and precision of snow depths measured using this system through 1) a comparison with airborne scanning LiDAR, 2) a comparison of results from two independent and slightly different photogrameteric systems, and 3) comparison to extensive on-the-ground measured snow depths. Vertical accuracy and precision are on the order of +/-30 cm and +/- 8 cm, respectively. The accuracy can be made to approach that of the precision if suitable snow-free ground control points exists and are used to co-register summer to winter DEM maps. Final snow depth accuracy from our series of tests was on the order of ±15 cm. This photogrammetric method substantially lowers the economic and expertise barriers to entry for mapping snow.