Measuring water level in rivers and lakes from lightweight Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

Filippo Bandini, Jakob Jakobsen, Daniel Haugård Olesen, José Antonio Reyna-Gutiérrez, Peter Bauer-Gottwein

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The assessment of hydrologic dynamics in rivers, lakes, reservoirs and wetlands requires measurements of water level, its temporal and spatial derivatives, and the extent and dynamics of open water surfaces. Motivated by the declining number of ground-based measurement stations, research efforts have been devoted to the retrieval of these hydraulic properties from spaceborne platforms in the past few decades. However, due to coarse spatial and temporal resolutions, spaceborne missions have several limitations when assessing the water level of terrestrial surface water bodies and determining complex water dynamics. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) can fill the gap between spaceborne and ground-based observations, and provide high spatial resolution and dense temporal coverage data, in quick turn-around time, using flexible payload design. This study focused on categorizing and testing sensors, which comply with the weight constraint of small UAVs (around 1.5 kg), capable of measuring the range to water surface. Subtracting the measured range from the vertical position retrieved by the onboard Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) receiver, we can determine the water level (orthometric height). Three different ranging payloads, which consisted of a radar, a sonar and an in-house developed camera-based laser distance sensor (CLDS), have been evaluated in terms of accuracy, precision, maximum ranging distance and beam divergence. After numerous flights, the relative accuracy of the overall system was estimated. A ranging accuracy better than 0.5 % of the range and a maximum ranging distance of 60 m were achieved with the radar. The CLDS showed the lowest beam divergence, which is required to avoid contamination of the signal from interfering surroundings for narrow fields of view. With the GNSS system delivering a relative vertical accuracy better than 3-5 cm, water level can be retrieved with an overall accuracy better than 5-7 cm.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Hydrology
Pages (from-to)237-250
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • UAV
  • Water level
  • Radar
  • Sonar
  • Laser
  • GPS

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