Data Collection / Aerial / Business Strategies for Surveyors

A Boon to the Profession

June 27, 2013
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Some surveyors might be wary of unmanned aerial systems (UASs). Not because of the security or privacy concerns raised by the public or in some state

Woolpert Nova Block III Altavian

Woolpert tests its first unmanned aerial system, the Nova Block III manufactured by Altavian. The Nova Block III is an  all-electric system that collects  high-resolution imagery with the capability to deliver data in real time. Image courtesy of Woolpert

legislatures, but due to the potentially negative economic impact it could have on the traditional surveying business.

On the surface, those concerns are legitimate: Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) are going to revolutionize the surveying and mapping profession, assuming regulations are adopted integrating UAS into the United States national airspace. But that doesn’t necessarily mean surveyors are going to be priced out of existence. The barriers to enter the UAS market may not be as steep as one might imagine, and the potential reward is exponential.

A recent study indicates that integration will have an $82.1 billion impact and provide 103,000 new jobs from September 2015, the date set by Congress for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to have regulations in place for UAS integration, through 2025. Even if the surveying and mapping profession earns only a fraction of that estimated revenue, as the study “The Economic Impact of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the United States” indicates, the economic affect will still be enormous.

“It’s going to be great for the economy and exciting for our business,” says Jeff Lovin, senior vice president and director of geospatial services at Woolpert, a design, geospatial and infrastructure management firm in Dayton, Ohio. “It’s going to create new technology, which is always fun, always a challenge. When you can get a UAS, an entire system, for less than $100,000, (it) definitely changes the landscape of who can get in the game and participate.”

 

With interest rates at historic lows and a few years before commercial UAVs are allowed take off, literally, traditional surveyors have time to get in on the ground floor of this emerging technology. And even if surveyors can’t afford to buy a unit–small ones typically go for $15,000 to $50,000–UAS rental rates are expected to decline precipitously.

Darryl Jenkins, one of the authors of the report commissioned by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), identifies expenditure as an advantage for anyone looking to invest in UAS technology. “The good news is we have a number of years to build that capital base. … When the regulations come into place, I think you’re going to find a number of venture capitalists ready to go in and do this,” says Jenkins, an aviation economist and former director of the Aviation Institute at George Washington University.

The authors, including Bijan Vasigh, an economics and finance professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, made their predictions based on interviews with more than 60 experts, analysis of the economic value in UAS integration overseas and following talks with trade associations. They estimate that the total economic impact stemming from integration in the first three years will surpass $13.6 billion. It will then grow substantially until 2025, when the total economic impact of the first 11 years passes $82 billion. Of that $82 billion, more than $482 million will be collected as tax revenue for local, state and federal governments, and 103,776 new jobs will be created nationally by 2025.

 

In urging faster integration, Jenkins calls $82 billion the authors’ “most conservative scenario.” “Every year that we delay integration, it costs the United States more than $10 billion in potential economic impact and this is the number we want you to remember,” the authors write. “This translates to a loss of $27 million per day that UASs are not integrated into the national airspace system.”

But it’s not just economic and job growth that will transform the surveying and mapping profession. Michael Toscano, president and CEO of AUVSI, says that those who invest in UAS technology will save money, too. What might cost mapping professionals between $200 per hour and $400 per hour to rent manned aerial systems such as helicopters and small planes in 2013, could cost $25 per hour to $75 per hour with unmanned systems, he predicts.

Mike Tully, president and CEO of Aerial Services of Cedar Falls, Iowa, notes that remote-sensing operations will become more practical for surveyors as unmanned technology improves and costs decline. “UAS will enable much better, less expensive remote sensing of all types,” he says. “Current business models using manned aircraft and traditional sensors will cease to exist, except perhaps in specialized operations.”

Aerial Services, a corporate member of AUVSI and a provider of aerial acquisition, digital ortho, vector mapping, terrain and LiDAR services, expects to capitalize on integration. After examining the report, Tully says he anticipates that $82 billion “understates the transformative and economically powerful force UAS will have on our economy.”

Tully says the report provides evidence that the U.S. must speed up the process toward integration. He says that commercial use in rural areas where safety and privacy concerns are minimal could begin while the FAA is developing the rules, potentially jump-starting the UAV industry. Even though his suggestion is unlikely to gain traction, small UAVs will still have a huge impact on the surveying profession when they are allowed to fly.

Lovin says UAS will create opportunities for Woolpert, perhaps allowing it to re-enter smaller markets it left due to the high costs. He predicts that UAS will supplement Woolpert’s topographic surveying work shortly after integration.

 “For example, right now it isn’t cost-effective to survey a 200-acre site with aerial photogrammetry, so it’s typically done with traditional boots on the ground,” Lovin says. “That’s where I think the UAS will be a great sweet spot. Surveyors will be able to go out and do their boundary work and ground control, but then they can launch a UAS and fly a small aerial mission and combine limited boots-on-the-ground data with the aerial data. … Instead of sending a three-person crew out for a day and a half, you could maybe send one or two people out for a day and get everything collected. It’s a great way to do those types of projects.” 

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