Buckle up. Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are ready to take off for the surveying and geospatial professions.
At the AUVSI’s Unmanned System’s conference this summer, manufacturers taxied around the exhibition floor with the newest technology. On Wall Street and in Silicon Valley, investors—such as former Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson—are fueling up startups. In Washington, the FAA and other government agencies are navigating policy and privacy issues.
Whatever the nature, UAS will take flight because they can provide tangible benefits, particularly in speed, safety and efficiency. Several companies, including but not limited to Trimble and SenseFly, appear prepared to lead surveying and the geospatial community into the air with unmanned vehicles.
The benefits drive the acceleration of UAS usage, and the benefits start with speed. “Speed is significantly greater than what a surveyor can do with traditional tools,” said Rob Miller, the UAS portfolio manager at Trimble.
UAS also offer advantages in safety, particularly in difficult terrain and for avoiding wildlife and snakes in land surveying. Perhaps most importantly, UAS provide great benefits in efficiency, saving time and money for firms on many projects. “Just the fact that you can do things cheaper, you can do things yourself and you can do things on demand and get 100 times better resolution, it’s become a very attractive thing,” says Pat Lohman, the COO of Precision Hawk, a UAS company that was founded in Canada.
Unmanned aircraft systems are not perfect. Other solutions and systems can provide better accuracy. Nevertheless, the benefits of UAS make them ideal for certain applications. “It’s not about the platform,” Lohman said. “It’s about the data.”
According to Miller, UAS are a perfect fit for volume calculations of stockpiles and open-pit mines because of their speed, safety and efficiency. Often times, only one flight is needed to survey the area and capture the data. “Basically, (UAS are) able to turn around results in a day,” Miller said.
The Gatewing X100, the predecessor of the Trimble UX5 aerial imaging solution, has monitored elephant populations in Burkina Faso, and Lance Brady of the Bureau of Land Management says his agency also has used UAS for wildlife monitoring.
Brady and the BLM stayed busy in the fall of 2013. Despite having just a few aircraft and only a few people in the UAS program, the BLM has used UAS for projects in West Virginia, Idaho and Arizona in the last half of 2013. In West Virginia, the BLM used the UAS for volumetric mapping of mines. After that, the agency monitored sagebrush growth near Idaho Falls to determine if any invasive species had entered the area following wildfires this summer. Brady’s team used PhotoScan photogrammetric software, and he said that the imaging has improved since last year. “For right now, I think we’re doing good things,” Brady said. “We’re still in a test and evaluation mode.”