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Unmanned Aerial System (UAS)

The Research Institute for Nature and Forest (INBO) has a mandate to monitor Natura 2000 habitats in Flanders. Remote sensing by aircraft and satellite has helped to conduct vegetation monitoring more efficiently, but these methods have their limits in flexibility and image resolution.


To monitor those habitats more efficiently, the Gatewing X100, an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS), is deployed. The lightweight aircraft flies on autopilot at high speed and low altitudes, and is equipped with an RGB or Near-Infrared camera. This allows the researchers to photograph at very high resolutions (pixel size up to 5x5 cm) and several times a year, even in windy or cloudy weather. The analysis of the resulting images is facilitated by using object-based image analysis software.

Left: Deploying the Gatewing X100 (©INBO) - Right: Natura 2000 habitats in Belgium (Source: Wikipedia and http://natura2000.eea.europa.eu/)

Despite the embargo by the Directoraat-generaal Luchtvaart (DGLV) on issuing permanent flight permissions for unmanned aircrafts, the INBO was able to perform 29 flights in 2015, for which temporary permissions were obtained. Hence, high resolution images of the nature reserves Zwin, Kalmthoutse Heide, Eigenbilzen, Averbode and De Liereman could be obtained.

In 2016, 4 flights were carried out: 2 in the Kalmthoutse Heide (February 5th) and 2 in Averbode Bos & Heide (April 1st). As for the 29 flights in 2015, these were done under temporary flight permissions issued by DGLV.

From April 10th 2016 onwards, a new Royal Decree came into force with stringent regulations for the use of unmanned aircrafts in Belgian airspace. These regulations include training, permissions, logbook keeping, insurance, restricted flight zones and altitudes. In addition to having to comply with these regulations, the Gatewing X100 UAS has an operational flight altitude that is outside the scope of the Royal Decree, which means additional permissions are required. Given the high costs associated to complying with the new rules, and the expected arrival of commercial providers under the new rules, the UAS project has temporarily been put on hold. The INBO is currently re-analyzing the costs and benefits in the changed context.

Data processing and storage

To process the images of the 33 flights that were carried out, the INBO set up a virtual machine using Amazon's web services (AWS) with 32 virtual CPU's, 60GB of RAM memory and a graphical processing unit (GPU). Photoscan provides an option to perform processing in parallel using the GPU, which results in a great reduction in processing time when this option is enabled.

For storage, the AWS S3 service is used, which provides a virtually unlimited amount of storage space, while you only pay for the volume used. Furthermore, it provides durability guarantees that are very hard to reach otherwise. An S3 bucket was created for all UAS images and processing outputs. The bucket is reachable from the INBO network and from the processing machine.  Setting a less restricted access policy to certain files in this bucket can be done with little effort.