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GPS World | The shape of water: bathymetry in action

SPH Engineering
November 10, 2020

Article by Matteo Luccio (GPS World)

As the skipper of Galileo 4, a 50-foot sailboat on the Columbia River, I instruct my crew to alert me if the water under the keel drops below 10 feet and take immediate action if it drops below 5 feet, because I cannot constantly monitor my chart to avoid running aground. Yet, the huge cargo ships that navigate the river for 100 miles from its mouth at Astoria to the Port of Portland sometimes have as little as two feet of vertical clearance.

This feat of navigation is made possible by the knowledge, experience and electronic equipment used by the river pilots who steer the ships, the hydrographers who survey the river, and the dredge operators who perform the Sisyphean task of maintaining the required depth of the navigation channel. Each additional inch of draft they enable allows a ship to carry additional cargo worth up to several million dollars.

In similar ways, marine professionals around the world cooperate to chart ocean bottoms and to keep ports, harbors and navigable waterways safe for the more than 90% of trade that is carried by ships. Additionally, off-shore installations—such as fiber optic cables, pipelines, drilling platforms and wind turbines—all require accurate surveys of the ocean floor. Finally, population growth in coastal areas and sea level rise due to climate change are driving the need for bathymetric data for planning and emergency management.


For centuries, mariners recorded water depth using nothing more than a lead line, a compass, a sextant and a rudimentary nautical chart. This was such a time-consuming process, however, that they could only perform it for a tiny percentage of the world’s oceans and coastlines. Today’s technology makes the process not only more accurate, but also vastly more efficient.

In deep waters, depth data is collected using huge multi-beam echo sounders (MBES) that operate at very low frequencies. As the depth decreases, smaller devices are used that operate at higher frequencies and, therefore, have higher resolution. However, close to shore, the efficiency of these devices drops dramatically, as the cone of their sound signal is cut off by the slope of the shelf. This is where airborne lidar sensors become a much more efficient means of collecting depth data.

In addition to data from the sounders, bathymetry requires data about the vessel’s location and attitude. The former, an obvious requirement for any kind of mapping, are collected by differential GNSS receivers. The latter, collected by an inertial measurement unit (IMU), are used to compensate for variations in the depth measurement depending on the vessel’s rotational movements (roll, pitch and yaw) and translational movements (heave, surge and sway). This is the same reason that aerial photogrammetrists use IMUs on aircraft.

Requirements and capabilities

For bathymetric surveys using an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), the control software must keep the platform at a constant altitude and speed over the surface of the water, because the echo sounder is dragged through the water at the end of a cable, explained Alexey Dobrovolsky, CTO of SPH Engineering, based in Riga, Latvia, which delivers UAV-related software. Therefore, he said, “missions should be executed in a fully automated mode.” His company’s software only requires the UAV’s operator to define the survey area, set the direction of the survey lines, and specify the distance between them. The software will handle everything else. “We automatically recalculate the depth measured from the echo sounder to the real depth in our data files using data from a radar altimeter,” he said. “Our software contains a high-end model of the echo sounder, which has a tilt sensor and a pitch sensor.”

Of course, dragging an echo sounder from a UAV only works for small areas, such as in open pit mines where the liquid can be very contaminated. “The flight time with an echo sounder of the most popular UAV will be around 20 minutes,” said Dobrovolsky. “That determines the maximum length of the survey lines that can be covered by a single flight.”

A couple of years ago, SPH began to provide some UAV-based bathymetry solutions that use low frequency ground-penetrating radar (GPR). There are two scenarios when GPR can be useful for bathymetry, Dobrovolsky explained. The first one is to do bathymetry through ice on the surface of lakes or rivers, which would require drilling holes to use an echo sounder. “With GPR, you can do bathymetry through the ice layer,” he said. The second scenario is mountain rivers with extremely strong currents, when it is not possible to use a standard manned or unmanned boat, because GPR works without contact with the water.

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