Monitoring turbidity from above: Deploying small unoccupied aerial vehicles to image in-stream turbidity

Karyn Ehmann, Christa Kelleher, Laura E. Condon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


Small unoccupied aerial systems (sUASs) are increasingly applied to study hydrologic processes and water quality. Here, we evaluate a novel application of sUAS to stream turbidity monitoring, with the goal of extending analyses implemented with satellite remote sensing to enable high resolution, rapid collection of turbidity imagery along smaller waterbodies. To accomplish this, we collected multispectral imagery using two sUAS platforms under a range of environmental conditions along a local creek in Syracuse, NY. In addition, we collected in situ turbidity observations immediately after each flight along several transects along the creek, as well as within a clear plume created by a natural spring entering the main channel of the creek. The in situ turbidity values were compared with the mean and standard deviation of several single-band and multiband indices extracted along similar transects from the sUAS flights. On the basis of data collected across several flights, we found optical metrics obtained from multispectral imagery correlated well with in situ turbidity measurements. Though many optical metrics yielded strong relationships considering only values within the main channel, values associated with the red band were strongly related to turbidity estimates from the main channel as well as lower turbidity values observed in the spring plume. Although there are still limitations of this approach associated with variable field conditions, results from this proof of concept analysis show that sUASs offer a promising avenue for cost-effective turbidity monitoring.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1013-1021
Number of pages9
JournalHydrological Processes
Issue number6
StatePublished - Mar 15 2019


  • NDTI
  • UAV
  • drone
  • multispectral
  • sUAS
  • turbidity
  • water clarity
  • water quality

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology


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