3D View from a Drone | Make a 3D Model From Your Photos

Shelley Olds (EarthScope Consortium), Randy Russel (UCAR Science Education Center) & David Thesanga (Alexander Dawson School)

EarthScope Consortium logo. Concentric circles in red grading to purple.

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Using cameras mounted to drones, students will design and construct an experiment to take enough photos to make a 3-dimensional image of an outcrop or landform in a process called structure from motion (SfM). This activity has both a hands-on component (collecting data with the drone) and a computer-based component (creating the 3-dimensional model).

Drones can take photos that can be analyzed later. By planning ahead to have enough overlap between photos, you take those individual photos and make a 3-dimensional image!

In this activity, you guide the students to identify an outcrop or landform to study later or over repeat visits. They go through the process to plan, conduct, and analyze an investigation to help answer their science question.

The Challenge: Design and conduct an experiment to take enough photos to make a 3-dimensional image of an outcrop or landform, then analyze the image and interpret the resulting 3D image.

For instance they might wish to study a hillside that has been changed from a previous forest fire. How is the hillside starting to shift after rainstorms or snows? Monitoring an area over many months can lead to discoveries about how the erosional processes happen and also provide homeowners, park rangers, planners, and others valuable information to take action to stabilize areas to prevent landslides.

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This activity was developed for middle school and high school students, grades 6 - 14. This activity could be conducted as an after school project.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students should be able to have a basic understanding of flying a drone, as well as be able to interpret a computer generated model.

How the activity is situated in the course

This activity can be used at any time in an earth science class, though is particularly useful when discussing geologic hazards, environmental issues, remote sensing techniques, or interpretation of models. It is also a great activity to teach students how to design and implement a field experiment for data collection. The lesson needs three class sessions or more (44-55 minutes each or more). One session to develop an investigation plan, one to collect the data, and a final session to generate the models and analyze it.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Students will be able to:

  • Design and implement a field experiment to effectively collect data for use in the generation of 3-dimensional computer models.
  • Investigate how camera angle impacts photographs and how shapes appear within the photographs.
  • Investigate a science question that uses a 3-dimensional model to inform their analysis.
  • Identify additional earth science projects where a drone-mounted camera is useful.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Develop and interpret a 3-dimensional model of a land surface from overlapping photographs.

Other skills goals for this activity

Not applicable

Description and Teaching Materials

Activity Structure

  1. Write a draft question: What are you trying to discover by making the 3-dimensional image?
  2. Make a plan
    • Sketch a map showing planned route
    • Sketch a drawing of where the photos will be take
    • Create a safety plan
  3. Field work: Take the photos and measurements
  4. Carry out the investigation and collect data
  5. Create the 3d model(s)
  6. Analyze & interpret the model(s)
  7. Assessment: Students describe what have they learned from data and the project.

A 3D View from a Drone - teacher materials (Acrobat (PDF) 1.4MB Oct11 21)
A 3D View from a Drone - student worksheet (Acrobat (PDF) 425kB Oct11 21)

Teaching Notes and Tips

In order to for students to complete this lesson, they will need to have the following materials in addition to the worksheets:

  • Drone with a camera or a long pole to attach a camera
  • Extra batteries
  • One-meter circle or square laid on the ground (cloth or tarp) and long tape measure
  • Software that will make a 3D image from photos such as (note this lesson does not cover how to use these programs):

The process of taking many overlapping photos to construct a three-dimensional model is often called structure from motion (SfM). This photogrammetric technique has many research applications in geodesy, geomorphology, structural geology, and other subfields of geology. Learn more about this technique in the Geodesy Tools for Societal Issues unit: Introduction to SfM.


Students describe what have they learned from data and the project Have students describe what have they learned from data and the project.

  • Tell students to compile flight log, hypothesis, images, data chart, conclusion and any additional project pictures and results into a short report (or PowerPoint) for a classroom presentation or science fair exhibit.
  • Ask students how they would have changed their investigation designs. What modifications, sensors, and/or instruments would have helped with their projects? Suggest that they take a look at the engineering design loop for ideas.
  • Tell students to brainstorm additional projects they can do with the camera on their drone. What other 3D projects could they do? How could printing the 3D image help with their analysis, communication, etc.?

References and Resources