PSDJ creates 3D models and maps of war-ravaged Donetsk Airport, using citizen groups' drone video

Still image of АРМІЯ SOS, a citizen's group to support the Ukrainian Army, deploying a small remotely piloted aircraft system. From the twitter feed of @AMykhailova.

Still image of АРМІЯ SOS, a citizen's group to support the Ukrainian Army, deploying a small remotely piloted aircraft system. From the twitter feed of @AMykhailova.

In a similar way that the garages and workshops of the 1970s gave birth to the personal computer, the garages and workshops of today have given birth to the vast majority of today's consumer and commercial drones. Mobile phones, small sensors, and consumer electronics are owed far more credit to the creation of small, affordable drones than defense contractors.

But because the most high-profile use, and sensational coverage of, remotely piloted aircraft happens in war zones, the dominant narrative of domestic drone use is "drones coming home from the battlefield." That narrative has made the public quite weary of commercial and civilian drones, even if those drones have real benefit to the public.

Nevertheless, it has not been lost on forward-thinking journalists how useful a drone could be to report events happening on the battlefield. The cost of war, and the horror of human rights abuses, could be laid bare before a public which all to often is mislead, misinformed, and uneducated when it comes to military conflicts.

Friday, Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine launched their latest offensive and claimed to have taken the Sergey Prokofiev International Airport, also known as Donetsk International Airport. The United Nations Secretary-General announced he was "alarmed by the severe escalation of fighting for control of Donetsk airport in eastern Ukraine," and urged that "civilian suffering must be avoided at all costs."

Despite a cease-fire signed Sept. 5 between the separatists and Ukraine government, shelling continued. A Nov. 20 United Nations report estimated 4,200 civilians and soldiers had been killed in Ukraine since April.

The airport was once a source of pride for Donetsk. It featured a relatively new main terminal, built for the EUFA Euro 2012 soccer tournament. Its website still mentions an on-site hotel, several restaurants and shops, and mentions service from 15 airlines. In 2012, it served a million passengers, making it the third-busiest airport in Ukraine.

Google Earth satellite imagery recorded on Sept. 2, 2014. Note existing damage to the southwest corner of the main terminal.

Google Earth satellite imagery recorded on Sept. 2, 2014. Note existing damage to the southwest corner of the main terminal.

Frames from the Army SOS aerial video were extracted and processed through Agisoft PhotoScan photogrammetry software to produce three dimensional models and photomaps.

Frames from the Army SOS aerial video were extracted and processed through Agisoft PhotoScan photogrammetry software to produce three dimensional models and photomaps.

Now, it has become a symbol for the "fighting spirit" of Ukrainian forces, and a coveted landmark of the separatists. Given its current condition, however, the airport is of dubious strategic value.

A group of civilians called АРМІЯ SOS, or Army SOS, on Friday released aerial video of the war-ravaged Donetsk Airport, which they obtained using a small, fixed-wing drone. According to the group, the video was collected on Jan. 15, potentially documenting the airport between its capture by separatists, and its re-taking by the Ukrainian army.

Army SOS describes itself as an initiative to assist Ukrainian soldiers by purchasing ammunition, equipment, and food. Their drone exploits have served to promote their cause, and as of Monday, their aerial video has gathered more than 1.6 million views. It has captured the interest of the media as well, with Gizmodo writing that the video serves as strong evidence in support of drone journalism.

The video's creators did not answer a request for interview, but it was possible to extract and process frames from the video in order to generate more information about Donetsk Airport.

This satellite photo of the southwestern corner of the airport, also dated Sept. 2, 2014, shows some damage already had occurred to the air traffic control tower. The plane in the lower right of the image, most likely a Tupolev TU-134 transport, is intact but had been left in the same spot for months. It would be another three days before the cease-fire was signed.

This satellite photo of the southwestern corner of the airport, also dated Sept. 2, 2014, shows some damage already had occurred to the air traffic control tower. The plane in the lower right of the image, most likely a Tupolev TU-134 transport, is intact but had been left in the same spot for months. It would be another three days before the cease-fire was signed.

In the photomaps created from the Jan. 15 Army SOS video, the aircraft is destroyed, and so is much of the air traffic control tower and its surrounding buildings. Snow cover makes it difficult to find tarmac and roads.

In the photomaps created from the Jan. 15 Army SOS video, the aircraft is destroyed, and so is much of the air traffic control tower and its surrounding buildings. Snow cover makes it difficult to find tarmac and roads.

About one frame per second was taken from the video, and then processed through photogrammetry software. This not only made it possible to generate three dimensional models of the warzone, but also to create dramatic photomaps that captured the landscape at a pivotal moment in history.

In the models, details come alive that are not all apparent from the videos. The models contain markers, which point out relevant aspects of the models, such as floors that have collapsed, skylights and skywalks that had been obliterated, and a TU-134 jet aircraft that was apparently abandoned and destroyed. Where information was not available from the airport website, it was obtained from user-generated photos and comments from Google Earth.

More analysis on the results is needed, which would measure the accuracy or distortion of these images (extracted from a 480p video). Yet, as publicly-available satellite images are few and far between, sometimes spanning months between new rounds of imaging for the same city, and resolution is limited, these drone-gathered photos provide timely and detailed information about this deadly and destructive conflict.

Posted on January 19, 2015 .