This article explains how you can geolocate drone videos and even determine the approximate time and date the footage was shot using freely available online tools, such as Google Streetview, Google Earth and SunCalc.
Over the past few weeks, we have seen many photos and videos that show the destruction and possible war crimes conducted by the Russian military in Ukraine.
Among the images and short clips that are shared on social media, there are also many drone videos.
However, it is not always clear when and where these videos were recorded. Therefore, we wanted to share the following example that explains how you can use clues in the Drone Video combined with freely available online tools to determine the location and the approximate day and time of the recording.
Drone video shows hundreds of Uighur Muslims
The video has been seen more than one million times but offers little in terms of where and when the drone video was recorded.
However, with a little determination and some online-investigation skills, you’d be surprised to learn how it is still possible to determine where and when the video was likely recorded.
The investigative skills used to analyze this particular drone video can also be used to help geolocate and date the many drone videos that are coming out of Ukraine.
How to geolocate drone videos
In a thread on Twitter, Nathan Ruser explains step-by-step how he was able to determine that this drone video was recorded at the Kuxi Railway Station, located in Korla City, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, China on or around August 20th, 2018.
The video shows a screen recording of a DJI drone video that shows hundreds of detainees (presumably Uyghurs) being led off of a train and lined up at a train station.
In the description of the video, we see the name Xinjiang, which is officially called the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in northwest China.
This is the only real information that is provided with the video. However, with a little online investigative work, we can learn a lot more, as Nathan will show us.
Identify landmark features to geolocate drone videos
First, let’s look at some of the distinctive features of the location and some landmarks that are visible in the drone video.
We can clearly see a building, a cell tower, blue buildings, a car park, trees, train tracks, etc.
However, Nathan explains that “the biggest clue is the orientation map in the bottom left that says (after a bit of squinting & checking Baidu Maps) “巴音郭楞蒙 古自治州”, an autonomous prefecture in Xinjiang that is often largely synonymous with the city of Korla. This was clearly filmed to the NW of there.”
This particular DJI drone has both an FPV camera as well as a separate camera mounted on a gimbal. The FPV camera points in the same direction as the drone and is almost aimed straight down the train tracks.
In what seems to be Photoshop for Windows, Nathan measures the angle of the red arrow in the orientation map and estimates that the drone is aimed at 282°, which is roughly facing northwest.
The orientation map in the DJI app also shows us a 10km scale bar, which measures 6.48 cm in Nathan’s screenshot. The distance from the approximate center of the Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture is roughly 8.05 cm at a bearing of roughly 300°.
Some basic math ((8.05/6.48)*10 = 12.42km) tells us that the drone is located some 12.42 km (or almost 8 miles) at a 300° angle from the label on the map.
Using Google Maps or Google Earth, you can now see that the landmarks shown in the video are easily recognizable on the satellite photos as well.
When was the drone video recorded?
So we found the spot and were able to geolocate the drone video. Let’s move on to the more difficult question. When was this drone video recorded?
Luckily, the world is full of little sundials, Nathan says in a tweet.
In this example, Nathan uses the angle and length of the shadow from a telegraph pole to determine when the drone video was recorded.
First, he finds a similar-looking satellite photo in Google’s collection and lands on a satellite photo from September 7th, 2019.
On that date, the shadow of the telegraph pole measured roughly 6.75m. Digital Globe tells us that when the satellite photo was taken, the sun’s elevation was 52.8°.
Now, you go to SunCalc.org, find the date of September 7th, 2019, and move the time slider at the top of the screen until you match the sun’s elevation of 52.8°. Next, you enter an estimated height of an object in meters in the toolbox, and the calculator will tell you the length of the shadow at that time of day. Keep adjusting the height until you get a shadow of 6.75 m.
You’ll find that you’ll need an object of 8.88m to cast a shadow of 6.75m when the sun is at an elevation of 52.8°.
So now we know the height of the telegraph pole to be 8.88m.
Nathan estimates the shadow in the drone video to be around 5m with a sun azimuth angle of 173.4°.
So now we go back to SunCalc and play around with the date and time until we find a moment when an 8.88m tall structure with a sun azimuth of 173.4° will cast a 5m shadow.
You will find it pretty spot-on on August 20th.
Tip: Be sure to download the Google Earth Pro desktop app, as it allows you to scroll through satellite images taken over time.
So now we have an estimated day, but not yet the year.
The year is harder to establish, but it can still be done by comparing the drone video with satellite photos from different moments in time.
For instance, Nathan points out that the car park in the video is not yet paved. Satellite photos show that the paving started in June 2019.
So the video has to be from before June 2019. The Chinese government’s crackdown on minorities started in 2017, so we’re looking at August 20th in either 2017 or 2018.
A closer examination of the drone video and satellite images. Nathan observes two small bushes that are visible in the video footage but not in the satellite image from 2017.
The small bushes are visible on the satellite photo from 2018. Therefore, he concludes that the drone video must have been recorded on or around August 20th, 2018.
Now, one thing that you have to keep in mind is the following:
“The sun is essentially in an identical position on the other side of the equinox, in this case, April 22nd. The position of the sun can’t tell you if it’s Aug 20 or Apr 22.”
However, when you factor in that the trees and bushes in the video show lots of green leaves, it seems more likely that the video was taken in August.
So, based on Nathan’s excellent online investigative work, it appears that the drone video was taken at the Kuxi Railway Station, located in Korla City, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, China on or around August 20th, 2018.
Geolocate drone videos. How is that relevant to Ukraine?
Hopefully, this article will have helped to explain how you can analyze drone videos to determine when and where the footage was recorded.
Online investigations such as the one described above are important in providing evidence of war crimes to the International Criminal Court.
Read more here about how on August 15, 2017, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued its first-ever arrest warrant solely based on evidence collected on social media.
The organization Bellingcat has some very good guides on how to verify social media, and analyze photos and drone videos that have been shared on social media so that the location, time, and date can be established.
Thanks to Nathan Ruser for the detailed explanation. I hope that this article may prove useful in spreading these techniques and knowledge.
What do you think about this guide to geolocate drone videos? Do you have any other tips we should add? Please let us know in the comments below.
Photos courtesy of Nathan Ruser.
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