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USGS Groundwater Information: Hydrogeophysics Branch

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Integration of sUAS into Hydrogeophysical Studies

 [ Photo: Scientist operates small drone. ]

USGS Hydrologist Eric White flies a small drone equipped with a thermal infrared camera during a groundwater/surface-water exchange study. Credit: USGS. Photo is in the public domain. Click photo for larger version.

The USGS Hydrogeophysics Branch is evaluating the integration of small unoccupied aircraft systems – sUAS or "drones" –  into USGS hydrogeophysical studies.

The sUAS sector is advancing rapidly through:

This combination of factors is enabling increased use of sUAS as accessible, cost-effective, and safe tools for low-altitude deployment of scientific sensors.

Potential Value to Hydrogeologic Field Studies

Integration of sUAS into groundwater studies will expand USGS capabilities to collect and use hydrologic information to improve our understanding of groundwater availability and quality:

HGB Evaluation and Integration of sUAS

There is significant interest in the application of sUAS-borne scientific sensors to USGS hydrogeologic studies, especially groundwater/surface-water exchange studies. HGB is evaluating the potential for cost-effective, operationally feasible integration of sUAS-borne sensors into USGS hydrogeophysical studies.

Initial efforts are focusing on evaluation and demonstration of hydrogeologic data collection with natural color, multispectral, and thermal imaging sensors on 3DR Solo quadcopters. Longer term HGB efforts include assessment of new and emerging sUAS geophysical sensors, such as ground-penetrating radar for bathymetry.

 [ Image: thermal infrared image collected with drone. ]

Thermal infrared image collected using a drone. In the image, the large yellow area in the upper left half is a stream, and the blue areas in the lower right are wetlands. The red area in the center of the image along the edge of the stream is relatively cooler groundwater discharging into the stream. The dark blue square is a ground control point, where the exact location is known and can be used to more accurately georeference the thermal imagery. Credit: USGS. Image is in the public domain.

Policy and Background Information

Sensors and aircraft used by HGB must be approved for use by the USGS UAS Project Office and Department of Interior (DOI) Office of Aviation Services. HGB remote pilots are carded for operations by the Department of Interior and certified Remote Pilots under the Federal Aviation Administration's Part 107.

For More Information

For more information on HGB sUAS operations, contact Cian Dawson (; 860-377-7081)


USGS National Unmanned Aircraft Systems Project Office

U.S. Department of Interior Operational Procedures Memorandum (OPM) – 11: DOI Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS)

U.S. Department of Interior/ Federal Aviation Administration Unmanned Aircraft Systems Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA): Operation of small Unmanned Aircraft System(s) weighing less than 55 lbs., in Class G airspace at or below 400 feet Above Ground Level (AGL) under the provisions of this authorization (2016-CSA-185-COA REV 1)

Federal Aviation Administration Unmanned Aircraft Systems



Lane, J.W. and Stoll, J.B., 2017, Introduction to this special section: Unmanned autonomous vehicles: The Leading Edge, vol. 36, no. 7, p.550, Available online at

Pai, H., Malenda, H., Briggs, M.A., Singha, K., González-Pinzón, R., Gooseff, M., Tyler, S.W., and AirCTEMPS Team, 2017, Potential for small unmanned aircraft systems applications for identifying groundwater-surface water exchange in a meandering river reach: Geophysical Research Letters,, available online at

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