3D Mapping of Colorado's High Peaks


Hi, I’m in the planning stage of an ambitious project to create a website of high-resolution 3D maps of some of Colorado’s highest peaks: the 14ers. The 14ers are the 53 peaks, scattered around the state, with an elevation over 14,000’. The best maps currently available are the standard USGS topographic maps. These maps only give a general idea of the terrain and hikers, climbers, skiers, search and rescue teams and many others would benefit from having better maps of these peaks.

Here’s a good example of why this important. The USGS 1:24,000 map of Longs Peak (14,259') provides very little useful information to a hiker or climber who must navigate the same terrain shown in the photo. The contour interval is 40’, the height of a 4 story building, and there is no photographic information. A higher-resolution 3D map, of course, would provide much more detail.  

The recent mapping of the Matterhorn (using drones by SenseFly) shows that high-quality (20cm resolution) maps can be produced with a small team and at relatively low cost. The devil, of course, is in the details and that’s why I’m here. I’d like to learn as much as possible and solicit advice from the group about how to generate similar maps of the Colorado 14ers. It certainly seems possible since the Matterhorn is roughly the same size as a 14er.



I’d like to produce and share a plan that compares both the SenseFly and DIY options. The 14ers present many challenges like high altitude, rough terrain, wind, lightning, storms, and cold, but if the project is feasible, I would like to launch a Kickstarter project with the goal of raising funds to begin mapping some of these beautiful peaks.

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  • Here's a link to the blog post for the test mountain: Mt. Bierstadt: Colorado's High Peaks - Mt. Bierstadt

  • Here's a link to the blog post for the SenseFly eBee option: Colorado's High Peaks - The SenseFly Option

  • Moderator

    The X5 is a great UAV . We use them as a base to build our Horizon UAV specifically for aerial photography and mapping purposes at www.air-vision-air.com and they are very stable and strong but they do need careful setting up as has been said before.

    The big issue with this project is going to be the high altitude as well as the lack of experience with the whole process.

    Our aircraft is probably one of the lightest X5 UAV's but we have never taken one to the heights this project would need, As Patrick has said the Matterhorn / Ebee flight used a whole team of experienced flyers and a fleet of aircraft.

    Start simple and get some practice on "easier"projects first.

    I fyou go ahead then good luck with the project, I will ber very interested to see the results

    UAV\'s for photos and mapping
  • I have just started experimenting with using small platforms for mapping and from experience I've noticed that anything with polyhedral in the wings tends to produce less roll, hence yielding better images. With this in mind, the X5/ X6 looks like a better mapping platform then the Caipirinha. 

    For testing purposes Ive been using a Bixler II, a homemade 40" wing with and without polyhedral.  I just purchased a 3DR Y6 and am going to be using it for testing the APM 2.6. Eventually moving it over to planes.

  • It's probably a fine platform, though not necessarily for a beginner. Looking at the product listing for the X6, it advises it has big elevons and you need to reduce the rates a lot on your controller. Generally beginners shouldn't fly such twitchy planes, as your tendency will always be to over control. If you want to try it for your first plane you can, but you'll have a lot of crashes. If you have the money to be able to buy an eBee, maybe you should just do that.

    I'm still not what your overall plan is here. Remember that SenseFly used a whole fleet of eBees to map the Matterhorn and a large team of people. While there are a lot of FPVers in CO, I can tell you now none of us have the equipment to do this. Only a couple guys have autopilots, and none of us are set up to do mapping missions. I think there are a couple companies doing aerial mapping here though, since I've seen a few posts from them on here. Somebody mapped the Pinery south of Denver, and somebody also did a mapping run over the flooding in Boulder. They're probably the ones you need to talk to.

  • Thanks for the advice Patrick - you're probably right.

    If I can’t find an experienced pilot, my lack of experience will likely make the DIY approach infeasible in the near-term. That’s fine, my main goal is to get the maps made, so the project will just have to go forward with the SenseFly approach. It will mean a different budget, of course, but it’s tested, tuned, and designed for newbies!

    I think it’s still worth designing a DIY package so the project can use that approach if an experienced pilot can be found. It might also be interesting for others here with a similar application. It’s probably easiest to pick a design as close to the SenseFly eBee as possible and move on to the more interesting logistical and mapping issues. Here's what I'm thinking so far:

    DIY Package

    - Plane: SkyWalker X-6 [~$140]

    - Motor: 2814KV-980

    - ESC: 60A

    - Servos: 2 x ? 17g

    - Prop: 9x5" folding

    - Battery: 4s 5000mAh

    - Autopilot: 3DR Pixhawk [~$200]

    - GPS: uBlox LEA-6 [~$80]

    - Camera: 16MP Canon PowerShot / CHDK

  • I would seriously recommend starting with a different plane and skipping the auto pilot until you're more experienced just flying an RC plane. This is not all as simple as it seems. SenseFly had been developing their plane for a long time and had a lot of experience before they got it to the point where it could be flown by someone with no experience. You're staring from scratch. Get a simple plane and a basic setup and start out from there. If you live in Colorado, come to one of our FPV meets to familiarize yourself with what we do. Learn basic RC first. Don't expect to start off with an autopilot and FPV gear right off.

  • I don't have any RC plane experience. At the moment I'm just trying to scope and organize the project and will need to find some experienced volunteers to help pull it off. Hint! Hint! SenseFly, however, claims that no piloting skills are required so I hope to test that claim at some point.

    Speaking of being a newbie, I'll need an autopilot, so I think I'll select the Pixhawk unless there's a compelling reason to go with the APM. I'm not sure what SenseFly uses - I'm assuming it's a proprietary system.

    Here's the latest - as usual, please let me know if there are better choices:

    DIY Package

    - Plane: 1 x SkyWalker X-6 (~59" wingspan, ~770g empty) [~$139]

    - Motor: 1 x ? 2814KV-980 [~$]

    - ESC: 1 x ? 60A

    - Servos: 2 x ? 17g

    - Prop: 1 x ? 9x5" folding

    - Battery: 1 x ? 4s 5000mAh

    - Autopilot: 3DR Pixhawk (~38g) [~$200]

    - GPS: uBlox LEA-6 with compass (~17g)  [~$80]

  • So, have you ever flown an RC plane before? At first I was starting with the assumption that you had, but now I'm thinking not. If not, a flying wing is not a good starting platform. Wings can be very difficult to launch and are pretty temperamental in flight, not to mention being a lot of work to build. If you're looking at getting your first plane, I'd recommend something like a Bixler or similar traditional fuselage design. Flying wings are considered more advanced planes that you need to work your way up to. If you're just starting out in RC, realistically this mountain mapping project will be something you'll need to work your way up to over several years. This past summer was the first time I felt comfortable flying in the mountains, and that was after doing RC for 2 1/2 years (2 years flying FPV). You've got a lot to learn and a lot of crashes between now and then. I don't want to discourage you from doing this, just telling you to start off slow and learn the basics.

  • Patrick McKay: Point well taken. I'm short on RC experience, so I'm hoping for lots of good advice from this group and, if the project goes forward, will need to enlist the help of some veterans. I'm keen to learn, but I'm also interested in seeing how much experience is needed when using an autopilot.

    Gerard Toonstra: Hopefully the X-6 will be the best choice, but I'll do some testing and can always fall back to the X-5 if it performs better. I'm beginning to think there will be a lot of waiting around until conditions are good, sort of like a surfer hanging out for the perfect wave...

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