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An aerial-geospatial odyssey through summer internship at Esri Canada

Are you ready to embark on a journey into the world of geospatial applications through drone technology? Robiah Al Wardah shares practical insights and experiences and helps bridge the gap between conducting drone imagery surveys and transforming the data into 2D maps through resources created during her internship.

This post was written by Robiah Al Wardah, PhD Candidate at Queen’s University, with contributions from Krista Amolins, Higher Education Specialist at Esri Canada.

Esri Canada supports academic research through partnerships in projects funded by federal agencies, including the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), and the research organization Mitacs. Members of the higher education team provide guidance and collaborate with students and principal investigators on topics such as transportation, public health, urban planning, demography, public safety, and natural resource management. When possible, students from these research projects are invited to visit Esri Canada’s offices to interact directly with staff and gain practical experience. 

One of our current research partnerships is under the NSERC-funded Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) program, which supports training and mentoring students and postdoctoral fellows. The Uninhabited Aircraft Systems Training, Innovation, and Leadership Initiative (UTILI) is led by Carleton University, the University of Ottawa, Queen’s University, L’École de technologie supérieure (ÉTS), Université de Sherbrooke, and Université du Québec en Outaouais (UQO) and  focuses on training engineers and scientists to tackle the technological complexities of safely and effectively operating Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS), commonly known as "drones."

The primary objective of Esri Canada’s partnership in UTILI is to seamlessly integrate RPAS technology into GIS solutions. This integration ensures the efficient utilization of RPAS data within Esri's software and tools, ultimately leading to the enhancement of GIS training and educational resources. Furthermore, the partnership aims to foster increased adoption of Esri's ArcGIS software in academic and research contexts.

Robiah’s Research and Internship

I am currently pursuing a doctorate in Geophysics within the Department of Geological Sciences and Geological Engineering at Queen’s University. During my academic journey, I discovered that GIS is a key component in geophysics. It serves as an essential tool for visualizing and analyzing geophysical data. I began using GIS extensively as an undergraduate student, creating various types of maps, such as geological maps and geophysical maps, and survey designs for geophysical data acquisition.

My current focus in my PhD research is the development of an integrated GIS and RPAS solution, tentatively called “Natural Disaster Information System (NDIS).” NDIS facilitates swift deployment of RPAS sensors to enhance monitoring of various natural hazards. The objective for developing NDIS is to provide an information system for monitoring/surveying all natural hazards using diverse RPAS types and available geophysical sensors as the RPAS’ payload, while considering flight regulations and proximity to infrastructure. The goal is to optimize RPAS monitoring before, during, and after natural hazards.

Initially, I considered creating a web application using tools outside the ArcGIS ecosystem. However, I soon realized that this approach was unfeasible given the constraints of my PhD timeline. Fortunately, I discovered a game-changing solution – ArcGIS Experience Builder. This tool, alongside ArcGIS Notebooks, which can be used in ArcGIS Online or via ArcGIS Pro for offline work, became my primary companions. As I approach the conclusion of my PhD journey, I'm planning to use ArcGIS StoryMaps to present my research deliverables. The primary goal is to engage stakeholders, government agencies, and communities, aligning with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN-SDG), particularly Goal 17.

As part of UTILI’s student cohort, I embarked on an internship at Esri Canada during the summer of 2023. This was an enriching experience and a significant milestone in my academic and professional career. As part of the internship, I developed educational resources that help students integrate drone imagery using ArcGIS Drone2Map and best practices for drone imagery survey. These tutorials focus on data collection and processing drone imagery to create 2D mapping products (True Ortho and Digital Surface Model). 

Robiah Al Wardah sits at her desk in Esri Canada’s Toronto office. ArcGIS Drone2Map is open on her laptop.

As part of her internship, Robiah got to experience working in a typical office environment. 

Best Practices for Drone Imagery Surveys

In most countries including Canada, flying small drones (between 250 gr and 25 kg) are subject to specific rules and regulations. For example, the drone needs to be registered and the operator should possess a pilot certificate, either Small Basic or Small Advanced depending on the type of mission they are performing. To help students and other new operators understand the regulations and how to conduct drone survey to obtain optimum resolution, I created a best practices document for drone imagery surveys.

The "Best Practices for Drone Imagery Survey" document outlines essential guidelines for conducting drone imagery surveys in Canada, with a primary focus on safety and compliance with legal regulations. It categorizes drone operations into microdrones (under 250 grams), small drones (250 grams to 25 kilograms) within visual line of sight (VLOS), and other operations (greater than 25 kg or beyond VLOS) requiring Special Flight Operations Certificates (SFOC). The resource emphasizes the importance of complying with Criminal Code offenses, maintaining VLOS, avoiding restricted areas, and respecting privacy laws when operating drones.

The document further explores flight planning strategies, ground control point (GCP) management, and practical tips for conducting surveys using drones within the boundaries of Canadian regulations. GCPs are important for georeferencing captured drone imagery, enhancing accuracy, and correcting terrain distortions during orthorectification. For those flying drones under 250 grams, registration and pilot certification are not mandatory, but responsible and legal drone operation is still essential. For drones weighing between 250 grams and 25 kilograms, the document summarizes rules and regulations, including registration, pilot certification, safe flying practices, and airspace rules.

Finally, the document offers a checklist for flight preparation, outlines procedural requirements based on Canadian Aviation Regulations, and provides resources for further information.

For readers interested in post-flight processes, I have created a tutorial, “Discover ArcGIS Drone2Map,” which will be posted later this year. This tutorial covers the main processing steps including importing drone imagery datasets, integrating control points for enhanced accuracy, and optimizing parameters like Dense Matching and Project Resolution during the image processing. It also covers post-processing tasks including clipping outputs to your project's area of interest and sharing layers to ArcGIS Online to aid in the distribution of your final products.

The ArcGIS Drone2Map user interface after processing the tutorial imagery. The contents pane on the left side lists the input data and output products. The manage pane on the right side shows the completed stages. In the map in the centre, the true orthophoto of the schoolyard is overlaid on the imagery basemap.

In the tutorial Robiah created, ArcGIS Drone2Map is used to process drone imagery into a true orthophoto and a digital surface model for a schoolyard.

Introducing K-12 Students to Geology and Geophysics

In addition to the drone resources aimed at higher education, I developed a story map for the K-12 Career Path Series titled “GIS for Geology and Geophysics”. The Career Path Series introduces students to how GIS is used in different sectors by spotlighting someone working in the sector, outlining career and education options, and guiding students through a scenario. This story map serves as an informative introduction to the application of GIS in geology and geophysics and provides resources for exploring potential career paths within these fields. It also offers a hands-on experience in creating maps related to geology and geophysics using ArcGIS Online.

My journey with geoscience started at a young age, as I grew up in a tectonically active region. My hometown in Indonesia is situated within the vicinity of the active Merapi volcano and the southern Java Island subduction zone. I've had firsthand encounters with geological disasters such as volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Being a part of the communities vulnerable to these disasters has prompted my curiosity about their causes and mechanisms. I yearned to gain a comprehensive understanding of the physical properties and processes affecting urban environments to better prepare for, respond to, and manage natural disasters effectively. This journey of discovery ultimately culminated in my decision to become a geoscientist. Witnessing these devastating events and their profound impact on society has shaped my career path. My commitment to contribute to disaster management and fostering community resilience in the face of geohazards remains a core motivation in my work in the field of geophysics.

Toronto Office Experience

I felt very welcomed by the team and included in all aspects of the work. Working with the Education & Research team at Esri Canada was a truly enlightening experience. Being part of this team was not just motivating but also expanded my perspective and sparked fresh ideas. These insights have been incredibly beneficial for both my personal and professional development.

The collaborative atmosphere within the team encouraged creativity and allowed us to explore new ideas and approaches. It was an environment that motivated me to push my limits and tackle complex challenges with confidence.

Outside of work, I had the pleasure of attending the 2023 Esri User Conference virtually. Beyond formal events, I joined some delightful company gatherings, including a memorable game of LOB, which blends bocce and mini golf. Surprisingly, my inner athlete emerged once again, and I secured second place in the game! I also had the opportunity to attend my first Major League Baseball game, witnessing the Toronto Blue Jays in action.

Regarding my dorm living situation, I had the opportunity to reside in the downtown area of Toronto, specifically at one of University of Toronto’s student residences. It was quite fascinating to inhabit a 19th-century building nestled in the heart of the bustling downtown. This living arrangement allowed me to thoroughly explore the city of Toronto, which, like most major metropolises, exuded a vibrant and dynamic atmosphere. However, whenever I returned to the campus bubble, it felt like stepping back in time to the 19th century once again.

In summary, my time with the Education & Research team at Esri Canada was a significant and valuable part of my academic and professional journey. Their warm welcome, inclusivity, and innovative spirit made a lasting impact on my growth as a geospatial professional.

For fellow students pursuing a career in these fields, let’s start by staying curious about anything that interests us, whether it’s science, business, engineering, or more. Through internships, co-op, or any other research projects, we will gain hands-on experience. Networking with professionals and continuous learning will be our compass. We will sharpen soft skills like communication and problem-solving. Remember, GIS skills have applications in various industries, so let’s stay versatile. Let’s stay passionate, adaptable, and committed to lifelong learning for a fulfilling career ahead!

About the Author

Krista Amolins is a Higher Education Specialist with Esri Canada. Her career in GIS started when she came across the Geodesy and Geomatics Engineering program at the University of New Brunswick and thought it sounded interesting. She earned a PhD in Geomatics Engineering, focusing on lidar data classification, and now she supports teaching and learning with ArcGIS at colleges and universities across Canada. Krista particularly enjoys interacting with the students who receive an Esri Canada GIS Scholarship or apply for the Esri Young Scholars Award each year. She also enjoys playing with apps and doing a bit of coding when she has time.

Profile Photo of Krista Amolins