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Is That a Drone I See Coming?

Posted By George Southard, Thursday, August 10, 2017
Updated: Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Is there a drone* in your future? Some people have placed a “drone” on the top of their Christmas list. Yes, small remote controlled aircraft are fun to play with. However, surveying and mapping professionals see these new drones as a potentially important new tool for their work. As soon as the childlike gleam in their eyes starts to fade, the questions come flooding in: 

  • Do I need a drone? 
  • Can it help me be more profitable, or is it a deep money pit? 
  • Can I use a drone to help better serve my clients? 
  • Are drones the hope for the future, or just a hope with no promise?  
  • A drone for surveying and mapping looks complicated; where do I start?  

The decision whether to use drones in your business can be complex. There are dozens of drone manufacturers, and dozens of types of drones, from small inexpensive units to large octopus like giants. The drone is just the platform for carrying many types of sensors; color cameras, infrared cameras, LIDAR units, thermal sensors and many more. The software to operate a drone is getting easier and simpler to use, but the software used to make proper survey grade map products is increasingly complex. There are some drones sellers who say you need only a spend a thousand dollars or so to start, others say it will cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars. And, what about all those complex FAA regulations? 

One of the most daunting issues faced by the new drone owner is the complexity of Governmental Regulations. For the past ninety years or so, flying aircraft in the National Airspace System (NAS) has been regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Whether flying for general recreation, carrying people for hire, or hauling freight, the FAA regulates how the aircraft users are expected to operate. FAA regulations have worked very well to the benefit of all who fly. The US airspace, while the busiest in the world, is also the safest in the world.

In 2007 the FAA recognized that the age of commercial drone use was dawning.  Technological advances in miniaturization of computers, communication equipment, navigation systems, etc. sparked the advancement of drone technology.  With the help of experts from industry, academia and government, the FAA has developed regulations for the safe use of commercial drones.  On 29 August 2016, the FAA released small UAS (drone) rules called, 14CFR part 107; or simply “part 107”.  This 620 page document details the regulations, rules and accepted operating procedures for the safe and legal operation of drones for commercial work. 

From the very beginning of the drone “boom” many surveying and mapping professionals have had visions of drones becoming a less costly, and more convenient way of collecting airborne imagery/data.  For decades these professionals have relied on the expertise of aerial surveying companies to provide photogrammetrically produced maps for a wide variety of geospatial applications.  New companies are now coming into the market offering professional drone mapping services for the surveying profession.

So here we are, there are dozens of drone systems and sensors now available, a new set of regulations and hundreds of thousands of aviation novices wanting to use UAS for commercial work. Surveying professionals are now asking questions like: 

  • Does this technology make sense for my business?
  • Can I make money using UAS?
  • What map products can be produced using a drone?
  • Should I hire an experienced service provider or do the work myself?
  • Where do I get help?

The Texas Society of Professional Surveyors  2017 Annual Convention and Tech Expo will feature Mr. George Southard teaching sessions focused on drone technologies for the surveying and mapping profession. Mr. Southard is an independent geospatial consultant specializing in the airborne mapping and surveying marketplace.

 * The use of the term “drone” in this article is for clarity sake, the more precise and proper term is Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS). The FAA uses term UAS when referring to aircraft that fly without a pilot on board. The public/press use the term drone for all unmanned, although, a drone is technically an unmanned military aircraft.

Tags:  drones  surveying  surveyors  texas land surveyors  UAS  Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) 

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