Mapping a WWII-Era Japanese American Internment Camp with Fixed-Wing Drones

Amache Japanese Internment Camp

When talking about professional mapping drones, it’s easy to get besieged with all their business benefits. But what often gets overlooked is the real and positive human impact that drones, and the images they help capture, can have.

While drones, such as the senseFly eBee X fixed-wing drone, help professionals and businesses to map areas faster and more efficiently, they’re also helping individuals like Jim Casey digitally preserve and reconstruct important national historic landmarks.

Honoring the past 

A GIS professional living in Denver, Colorado, Jim has dedicated a large part of his professional career to helping communities.

“Before I went into GIS, my work was in philanthropy. I was with the Denver Foundation, which is a community foundation,” he says. “They were starting to use my beginner GIS capabilities to answer spatial questions about where we should grant money for community needs.”

While earning his master’s degree in GIS from the University of Denver, Jim became involved with the Department of Anthropology and Archeology’s efforts to map the Amache Internment Camp, formally known as the Granada War Relocation Center.

From 1942 to 1945, more than 10,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated to Amache. The site is in Granada, Colorado and is one of several camps built by the U.S. government in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Wyoming, New Mexico, Idaho and Utah, among others.

Virtually all Amache’s original structures have been reduced to concrete foundations scattered across the grounds, which prompted the University of Denver and individuals like Jim Casey to try to map, research and digitally preserve the site with professional drones.

Amache Japanese Internment Camp
Amache Internment Camp as it stands today in Granada, Colorado.

Initial attempts at capturing aerial imagery of Amache, however, proved too much for Jim’s personal quadcopter. The site was too large, and the flight-time afforded by his system meant Jim was severely limited with what he could accomplish.

“Quadcopters are good, but they just don’t have the capacity to capture as many [images] with a single battery,” said Jim.

Jim’s work to aerially map Amache was also being done on a volunteer basis, meaning he didn’t have the project funds to purchase additional UAV systems.

Realizing that he needed help, Jim reached out to senseFly to see what, if anything, it could do to help him map the site.

senseFly eBee X launch
Jim Casey launching the senseFly eBee X at Amache Internment Camp in Granada, Colorado.

“I was at a GIS conference and started talking to someone at senseFly. I told him I was working on a project and that I really wanted to map it using an eBee. Now, Amache is one-square mile, which is a lot for one guy with a quadcopter, and I knew from previous research on senseFly and fixed-wings in general that the eBee would be perfect for the job.”

In addition to his quadcopter’s technical limitations, Jim was also in a race against the clock to map Amache due to impending government legislation.

“There is a bill presently in Congress called the Amache Study Act, which will likely result in Amache becoming a site which falls under the umbrella of the National Park Service,” he explains. “Not that it would become a National Park per se, but it will very likely fall under that umbrella, which could result in the land becoming federal land, and you do not fly drones on federal land as a general rule…unless you go through a lot of red tape.”

Mapping Amache 

In April of 2019, with the help of senseFly drone pilot Adam Zylka, Amache was successfully mapped using an eBee X fixed-wing drone.

senseFly’s Adam Zylka (left) and Jim Casey with an eBee X fixed-wing drone.

Accounting for setup time and battery changes (the eBee X has a flight time of up to 90 minutes), the entire Amache mapping mission, which included data collection for the one-square-mile site, was completed in under four hours.

In that time, the eBee X captured more than 4,000 images as part of the planned mission and documented where the camp’s barracks, schools and other buildings once stood.

The eBee X carried the senseFly S.O.D.A. 3D mapping camera, which collected imagery in both nadir and oblique orientations at an average spatial resolution of less than 3 cm/pixel.  The images were collected with survey grade accuracy thanks to the eBee X’s RTK connection to a senseFly GeoBase base station, allowing for the image geotags to be created with absolute horizontal and vertical accuracies between 3-5 cm.

Once the flights were completed, the imagery was processed off-site using Pix4D photogrammetry software to generate a high-resolution point cloud, 3D mesh and orthomosaic.

eMotion Flight Planning Software
The Amache Internment Camp mapping mission was carried out using senseFly’s eMotion flight planning software.

Jim says the images captured by the eBee X and the subsequent data will be used to help researchers and the general public in several ways.

“The first order of business is to create a full orthomosaic set and improve the online Amache map,” he says. “While the site doesn’t get a ton of traffic, the people who know about it use it. They know where they can find the locations they’re looking for, and now they’ll be able to do is with a resolution of one inch per pixel, which is outstanding.”

Jim also explains that the imagery and data will be used to help researchers at the University of Denver get a better understanding of the camp and how its residents went about their daily lives.

“There’s one graduate student who is doing research on [Amache’s] sidewalks to better understand the different routes residents walked,” he says.

Even in these nascent stages, the images captured by the eBee X is already helping Jim and the University of Denver team.

“I remember being late for at least one appointment because I had researchers and archaeologists asking me so many questions. At one point they stopped asking questions and just started stating facts. ‘I can see this,’ ‘Now, I understand where the baseball backstop was, it was right there.’”

What the future holds

Another goal Jim has is to use the images captured by the eBee X to create 3D outputs, specifically, a 3D recreation of Amache, which will help to create virtual reality and augmented reality apps.

By stitching together all the imagery and creating a true 3D representation of the camp, visitors can experience what life was like for Amache’s residents.

He provides an example of a future Amache visitor experiencing and learning more about the site with the help of an augmented reality app on their smartphone.

Not only would they be able to see the site as it stood some 70 years ago, but they could tap on 3D-recreated buildings and be treated to pop-up information telling them the history or function of the building or even who lived in a specific housing unit.

Amache Internment Camp Aerial View
Aerial view of the Amache Internment Camp.

“This is going to happen. I’m thousand percent sure of it,” he says. “We have one reconstructed barrack building already, which is on site, and I’m working towards obtaining the CAD files for that. Eventually, I want to digitally reconstruct the kindergarten, the high school, the police station and so on.”

The work he’s done and continues to do at Amache is just the beginning in what he describes as cultural heritage management or reconstruction.

“These cultural resources from the past are often only available in the form of photos or drawings or they are difficult to access by non-able-bodied individuals. With the help of drones, I want to rebuild all 10 camps. I want to reconstruct them in augmented reality and bring them to the classroom and to the experts so that they could get a better understanding of things.”

A powerful reminder

For Jim, using drones to digitally preserve and recreate Amache is not only vital for academic research; the aerial mapping work he’s doing is important so that Americans can come to terms with one of the darkest periods in the country’s history—a history that is often ignored.

“Mapping Amache and other camps like it is extremely important,” he says. “This is my contribution to history. It’s history that is not well documented, and I’m trying to enhance what we have as part of the historical record by making sure that this camp is well understood, well known and that’s it able to be researched by those who have a connection to it or find it important through their work or their studies.”

But perhaps more than anything else, the work being done is important to the survivors of Amache and their families.

“I want to tell you about a man I met at Amache,” he says. “He approached me when I was there one day. He and his wife drove up in their car. They got out and he had a piece of paper in his hand and said, ‘I need to get to this place. Can you help me?’ And I said, ‘Yes, it’s a 10-minute walk that way. Let me land my drone, and we’ll walk over there.’ When we got there, he told me his name, that he lives in San Diego, that they had flown there with nothing more than a piece of paper and a sketch map in their hands, and then when we walked over to this location he said, ‘I was born here.’”

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