Articles | Volume 20, issue 4
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 20, 1637–1653, 2016
https://doi.org/10.5194/hess-20-1637-2016
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 20, 1637–1653, 2016
https://doi.org/10.5194/hess-20-1637-2016

Research article 29 Apr 2016

Research article | 29 Apr 2016

Assessing the quality of digital elevation models obtained from mini unmanned aerial vehicles for overland flow modelling in urban areas

João P. Leitão, Matthew Moy de Vitry, Andreas Scheidegger, and Jörg Rieckermann João P. Leitão et al.
  • Eawag: Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, Überlandstrasse 133, 8600 Dübendorf, Switzerland

Abstract. Precise and detailed digital elevation models (DEMs) are essential to accurately predict overland flow in urban areas. Unfortunately, traditional sources of DEM, such as airplane light detection and ranging (lidar) DEMs and point and contour maps, remain a bottleneck for detailed and reliable overland flow models, because the resulting DEMs are too coarse to provide DEMs of sufficient detail to inform urban overland flows. Interestingly, technological developments of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) suggest that they have matured enough to be a competitive alternative to satellites or airplanes. However, this has not been tested so far. In this study we therefore evaluated whether DEMs generated from UAV imagery are suitable for urban drainage overland flow modelling. Specifically, 14 UAV flights were conducted to assess the influence of four different flight parameters on the quality of generated DEMs: (i) flight altitude, (ii) image overlapping, (iii) camera pitch, and (iv) weather conditions. In addition, we compared the best-quality UAV DEM to a conventional lidar-based DEM. To evaluate both the quality of the UAV DEMs and the comparison to lidar-based DEMs, we performed regression analysis on several qualitative and quantitative metrics, such as elevation accuracy, quality of object representation (e.g. buildings, walls and trees) in the DEM, which were specifically tailored to assess overland flow modelling performance, using the flight parameters as explanatory variables. Our results suggested that, first, as expected, flight altitude influenced the DEM quality most, where lower flights produce better DEMs; in a similar fashion, overcast weather conditions are preferable, but weather conditions and other factors influence DEM quality much less. Second, we found that for urban overland flow modelling, the UAV DEMs performed competitively in comparison to a traditional lidar-based DEM. An important advantage of using UAVs to generate DEMs in urban areas is their flexibility that enables more frequent, local, and affordable elevation data updates, allowing, for example, to capture different tree foliage conditions.

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Short summary
Precise and detailed DEMs are essential to accurately predict overland flow in urban areas. In this this study we evaluated whether DEMs generated from UAV imagery are suitable for urban drainage overland flow modelling. Specifically, 14 UAV flights were conducted to assess the influence of four different flight parameters on the quality of generated DEMs. In addition, we compared the best quality UAV DEM to a conventional lidar-based DEM; the two DEMs are of comparable quality.