The upcoming 2013 MAPPS Summer Conference in Rockport, Maine, includes a session that is bound to attract many attendees and stimulate some thoughtful discussion. On July 25 at 8:30 a.m., Mike Tully, president and CEO of Aerial Services, Inc., and George Southard, principal of GSKS Associates, will provide the group with the latest information about “Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Regulations and Sensors.”

Tully is presenting the portion of the session about sensors and how the latest developments in oblique, LiDAR and 3D technology relate to UAS. “Technology is progressing very quickly, particularly in the areas of flight, miniaturization, position and orientation, and sensors,” says Tully. “There are incredibly innovative people out there in their garages trying to figure out a new way to address these issues.  The military has driven the technology to this point, but now there are new players entering the market that will change the paradigm in which we currently operate.”

The progression of UAS from primarily military assets to commercial mapping tools is being watched closely by the members of the MAPPS organization. “MAPPS members are interested in this because UAS is going to be disruptive to the geospatial businesses and will seriously impact the mapping profession over the next five to 10 years both positively and negatively,” says Tully. “For example, when GPS became readily available, our engineering clients got their own GPS and started doing most of the smaller mapping projects that we did. UAS will cause the same trend. Farmers, for example, might purchase a mapping UAS and regularly map their own fields much more cost effectively than an aerial mapping firm can do today.”

UAS will result in more opportunities and new markets for mapping because they will be simpler, faster and less expensive.  “It’s important for traditional mappers to understand the limitations and possibilities of UAS, and explore how they complement their existing mapping tools,” says Tully. “Changes will need to be incorporated into new business models in order for traditional mapping firms to compete. Mapping may become a ‘platform as a service’ business. There may be big players who are collecting all the time, so continuous updates through a subscription service could be made available to a large number of markets.

“We feel that the combination of flight, sensor and geospatial technologies is coming together to do something very different with UAS,” says Tully. “We need to be prepared for the changes ahead in order to make the most of the many new opportunities this disruption will present.”

Southard is providing an update on UAS regulations, based on first-hand knowledge gathered at a variety of committee meetings such as the AUVSI (Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International), RTCA (Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics) and ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials). Due to the complexity of the issues and the coordination necessary between many government agencies, the development of legislation is a slow deliberate process.  “I attend meetings held by numerous committees that are researching and writing standards, and each has a different perspective and area of expertise,” says Southard. “The results are given to the FAA and are often used as a basis for rule-making to help them pass legislation that makes sense. At the same time, 40 out of 50 states have pending UAS legislation or have already passed rules of some kind, so there is a lot to keep track of.”

At the moment, FAA regulations prohibit the commercial use of UAS in the United States; however, standards and legislation that allow widespread operations are expected by 2015. The U.S. is the last major market to prohibit the use of UAS, so the rest of the world potentially will have a five-year head start in using the technology commercially. Although the FAA has already missed deadlines to announce their intentions, pressure to make progress is increasing. 

“This topic is included at the MAPPS conference because part of its role is to keep members up-to-date on issues that may impact their businesses,” says Southard. “MAPPS stays engaged with policy makers to educate them about the surveying, spatial data and geographic information system (GIS) professions and this is a key area going forward, although it may be several years before a traditional firm is seriously affected.”

“I see UAS as another tool for a mapping company. They won’t replace manned aircraft for mapping in every situation, but the small, high-value projects – such as pit mines, landfills and agricultural fields – are highly suitable for UAS,” says Southard. “It really will open up opportunities for customers who need continuous coverage, which is cost prohibitive at this time. Also, surveyors may end up buying UAS so that they can offer photogrammetric services instead of traditional land surveying methods for some types of projects. There will be a ripple effect throughout the geospatial community when UAS are allowed.”