Explorers have mapped the surface of the iconic Matterhorn painstakingly by foot, by satellite, and now by drone, thanks to a partnership between drone maker senseFly and nonprofit Drone Adventures. Launching a small squadron of eBee minidrones off the summit and sides of the famous Alps mountaintop, the mission tested the navigational abilities of the system and created a staggering data-rich 3D model.

When Gizmag covered the eBee in January of this year, we mentioned several of the drone’s features that would prove crucial to the Matterhorn mission: its compact travel form, long flight time, ability to withstand 45 km/h (28 mph) winds, and 3D mapping and navigating capability. Having test-launched the eBee off a ski slope, the company turned to the Matterhorn for the next test of its abilities.

One climbing team hauled an eBee to the summit of the Matterhorn, a feat made easier by being able to fit the drone into a backpack. This summit launch also tested the eBee’s ability to take off into mountain wind and turbulence. Other eBees were launched from two other altitudes lower down the mountain. Together, 11 flights were made, for a total 340 minutes of flight time and a flight distance of 263.6 km (164 miles).

The company’s software eMotion 2 provided all the ground control for the flights, even automatically creating flight paths for the multiple drones and returning them to preset locations.

Automated flight plans for the many eBees that were launched from midway down the mountain

Large numbers and big data is one application at which drones excel, and the eBees didn’t disappoint, with 2,188 photos taken, an HD point-cloud with 3 million datapoints, and an average resolution of 20 cm (8 in).

For an idea of what these numbers mean, while viewing the image models you can easily make out the hotel-like Hörnlihütte where mountain climbers have been resting on the northeast ridge since 1880, but not see the much smaller 10-bed cabin Solvayhütte higher on the same ridge and recessed into a cliff face.

A 3D model of the Matterhorn created from the data acquired by the eBees

One may interact with data visualizations of the Matterhorn, presented as a 3D point cloud model (requires WebGL support), color relief elevation chart, and an image mosaic, courtesy of MapBox.

The video below details some of the preparation, process, and final results of the project, complete with breathtaking views of the Matterhorn.

Sources: senseFly, Drone Adventures via IEEE Spectrum