How mini drones make maps: a TEDx Talk explores drone-powered 3D maps

We’ve all heard story after story about drones. How they’re delivering medicine, tracking endangered animals, entering into war, playing catch and learning to make decisions in groups. But did you know they can map?

At TEDxEcoleHoteliereLausanne in Switzerland, electronic cartographer Olivier Küng spoke about the power of drones to revolutionize map-making techniques.

“Visual knowledge of the Earth is so important — so valuable,” he says in his talk, “that right now there are dozens of satellites dedicated to this task [of mapping the Earth] and thousands of aircrafts taking images of the Earth every single day.

"Thanks to initiatives such as Google Earth or OpenStreetMap, this data has become accessible to everyone — even on your mobile phones. However, who controls this data? Who controls when, where, and how these images, these maps, are taken?

"Control of most of the satellites are inside of the hands of military, governments, and large, multinational corporations. What possibility is there for an individual or for a small institution to acquire aerial maps? What possibility is there for an individual or for a small company to decide when, where, and how these images are taken?"

The answer, he says, is mapping drones: small, autonomous aircrafts about the size of a pigeon. “They are lightweight, inherently safe, and can cover multiple square kilometers,” Küng explains. “This can make a huge difference for individuals, corporations and institutions, which are in desperate need for aerial images, aerial maps, but [for whom] none has — until now — been available.”

With his company Pix4D, Küng has created software that takes the thousands of images a mapping drone takes while in flight and transforms them into interactive 3-D maps. How are these maps being used? Says Küng, by farmers seeking to monitor vast distances of crops and fields, by mining companies that need to measure extensive mines, even by an oil tanker that became trapped by ice in Alaska and needed to find a safe way out.

Yet, the most important question that progress in drone technology raises, Küng says, is: "What would you do with it?"

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Watch the entire talk here, and find more great TEDx Talks on our YouTube channel.

(Above, samples of drone-photographed 3D maps and Küng with a mapping drone at TEDxEcoleHoteliereLausanne)

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