Blending An Emerging Technology With Autism

Paul Braun at Continental Mapping has come up with an extremely innovative way to combine two unlikely things: drones and kids with autism. I had the pleasure of hearing what Paul and the kids accomplished at the Wisconsin Land Information Association conference, and this week, we are featuring Paul’s inspiring story as he joins as our guest blogger to tell us about the Taking Autism to the Sky project.


Unmanned Aerial Systems:

Blending An Emerging Technology With Autism Via the Taking Autism To The Sky Project

By Paul Braun, Continental Mapping




Discussion on the use of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) or drones has become common place amongst engineers, architects, planners, surveyors, mapping professionals, and environmentalists.  The technology is poised to have a great impact on how we collect video, imagery and lidar data about areas of interest for the purposes of mapping, measuring, modeling and monitoring.  This technology will impact the ways in which you do your job.

Continental Mapping, a surveying and mapping company headquartered in Madison, WI is investing heavily into UAS.  Our efforts have focused on evaluating the various platforms on the market (some estimates are that close to 300 different hardware platforms exist today) and their ability to provide quality, repeatable aerial imagery and data for different applications.

In addition to Continental Mapping’s R&D efforts, is a focus by the company to perform outreach with our community.  Through a Continental Mapping staff member with a son on the autism spectrum, we decided to apply this technology to a project with a group of kids on the autism spectrum.  We created a project called Taking Autism To The Sky (TATTS) with the stated goal of giving kids with autism a new perspective of the world, from the air, by building and flying a UAS and making a film of their journey. The TATTS team was comprised of 8 boys ranging in age from 6-14, several siblings, and at least one parent for each child.  The team worked hard on maintaining a project blog.


Connor and the hex drone, courtesy of



The goals of the project were several fold:

  • People with autism are often very literal and think in pictures.  Empathy and perspective taking are often quite difficult.  We wanted to afford them an opportunity to literally take a different perspective and look upon the people and places they know from the air.  We wanted to use UAS technology as a tool for kids on the autism spectrum to experience, in a very pragmatic and concrete way, what perspective taking is like.
  • Allow the kids to experience the wonder of flight and real-time video, practice teamwork in planning and flying missions, and learn how to interpret aerial photography.
  • Evaluate the possibilities of this emerging technology as an employment source for people with autism.  Unemployment rates of young adults with autism has been estimated to be as high as 70%, far greater than other special needs communities such as down syndrome.

Over the course of the last year, TATTS team members built a UAS from scratch including GPS, real-time video transmission via an HD camera, landing gear, and a base station with goggles and a TV to watch live aerial.  From there the TATTS Team practiced flying on a simulator, completed a variety of missions out in the field (following FAA guidelines), and captured fantastic footage of locations including a local farm with a corn maze and a wetland preserve.

The TATTS Team worked in small teams during the construction of the UAS and they worked together as pilot and navigator in fictional search and rescue missions to find a person or item.  Once the imagery was collected, they processed and compiled the imagery into usage information much like a professional engineering, surveying or mapping firm would.

Depending on the configuration for a given mission, the UAS collected video 1080i high definition video or imagery (both oblique and nadir). With videos and imagery in hand, the TATTS Team created photo mosaics using open source software and 3D point clouds from Pix4D.  The 3D data supports measurements and the creation of 3D models for use in CAD and GIS.  This imagery has a ground sample distance of about 2” or better so users can see a great deal of detail.

Here are a few of our favorite aerial shots.


Treinen Farm – Lodi, WI:

Image 7


Photomosaic of Treinen Farm – multiple aerial shots seamed together:

Image 15


Here are short movies the kids made of the entire process including lots of aerial footage (and a few crashes).


Here are a few clips of some of the 3D point clouds that the kids generated.


The TATTS team had ample opportunities to refine their understanding of the world around them while obtaining very concrete examples of another perspective of the places they know and understand. They sharpened their social skills while learning technical skills like soldering, video editing, and movie production.

TATTS also offered Continental Mapping an opportunity to engage with our local community and share a cutting edge technology. A nationwide study recently published found that only about half of those with autism had ever held a job since high school and only about a third were currently working. We believe that the UAS market is an area that may be well suited to the skills and abilities of those on the autism spectrum.  Who knows, we may have trained our future workforce!

For a complete walk through of the TATTS project, check out the team’s blog at

For more information about me or my work, please feel free to get in touch.


Many thanks,

Paul Braun
Vice President – Sales & Marketing, Continental Mapping


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