Look up, look way up: unmanned aerial vehicle flies over campus

An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is flying around York University this week as part of an experiment designed to develop 3-D technology that will provide a detailed picture of what’s happening in any city – whether it’s a concert or a crime, a traffic jam or the creative route a driver takes to avoid it.

Weighing just 1.3 kg and measuring 80cm x 80cm x 30cm, the Aeryon Scout is flying no more than 60 metres off the ground, with a video camera focused on buildings, walkways and trees, as well as the activity around them.

“Mapping of urban environments is typically done from aircraft flying high above the city, or vehicles on the ground – i.e. Google Street View. But a lot of the important details lie somewhere in between,” says James Elder, a professor in both the Department of Computer Science & Engineering and the Department of Psychology at York. “This vehicle – the Aeryon Scout – can acquire the high-resolution imagery of building facades required to reconstruct the detailed 3D structure of our cities.”

The research team has developed proprietary computer vision algorithms and a geospatial web-mapping system to detect and track people and vehicles in real-time video streamed from city cameras, and then to project them as avatars into 3-D city models. This allows the life of the city to be experienced in a natural 3-D context, and viewed from any angle through web browsers. This is augmented by visual intelligence about the scene – for example, recognition of objects and activities, as well as things like vehicle speed.

A close-up of the Aeryon ScoutRight: A close-up of the Aeryon Scout. Photo by Keith LaPlume

The vertical takeoff and landing missions, continuing today, are a small but important part of the ongoing GEOIDE project, a major initiative funded by the federal government‘s Networks of Centres of Excellence program and the provincial government’s Ontario Centres of Excellence.

The larger goal of the project is to develop a system that gives people a window into the life of a city, whether it is an urban planner watching how people are using city sidewalks, police or security officials trying to prevent crimes or a tourist wondering what is happening at Dundas Square.

The UAV component of the project is a collaboration between Professor Claire Samson’s lab in the Department of Earth Sciences at Carleton University, Elder’s Human & Computer Vision Lab in York’s Centre for Vision Research and Professor Gunho Sohn’s lab in the Department of Earth & Space Science & Engineering in York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering.

Researchers from four other Canadian universities are also involved in the project, along with Aeryon Labs of Waterloo, Ont., which designs and manufactures the Scout UAV, and Neptec of Ottawa, which is providing 3-D structure from motion software technology. The Aeryon Scout is piloted (from the ground) by Tara Jones, as part of the requirements for her master’s in earth sciences from Carleton University.