“I wish I had known then what I know now” might be a familiar sentiment after a newly purchased piece of equipment or software does not live up to everyone’s expectations. Even if you do your homework before making an important purchase, there will always be surprises that can derail the intended plan. So before jumping on the unmanned aerial system (UAS) bandwagon, there are several significant factors to take into consideration that will improve the probability of success.

George Southard, principal of GSKS Associates, presented the following best practices at the 2014 MAPPS Summer Meeting held in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Based on input from actual UAS users and supplemented by knowledge gained 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), Southard has unique insights into preparing for the commercial use of UAS.

First, be sure to clearly understand why you want a UAS. UAS data collection services may complement an existing aerial and/or terrestrial imaging business, or be a brand new line of work for your firm. Many people see it as a less expensive method of flying small high-frequency projects, while aircraft will continue to be used for large area collects. Will a UAS pay for itself by attracting new business and increasing revenue, or just shift existing work to a different set of resources?

Next, in what markets do you expect to offer your services? There are numerous markets expressing an interest in UAS and more will come forward as soon as commercial operations are approved by the FAA. A UAS business plan might show revenue coming from current customers in traditional markets, such as oil and gas, as well as new customers in markets not currently being targeted for aerial imagery. After identifying markets, determine the hardware, software and expertise required to meet the needs of potential applications within each market.

Possible Applications for UAS Mapping, Monitoring and Inspection Services:

  • Precision agriculture
  • Construction management
  • Open pit mining
  • Stockpile inventory
  • Landfill management
  • Topo and orthophoto mapping
  • Search and rescue
  • Wild fire detection
  • Film making
  • Bridge/infrastructure inspection
  • Transmission line inspection
  • Disaster relief and response
  • Wildlife research and protection
  • Environmental monitoring
  • Journalism
  • Border patrol
  • Law enforcement surveillance
  • Real estate marketing

Depending on the markets you hope to serve, appropriate data must be collected to produce the necessary deliverables, such as videos, 2D orthomosaics and maps, 3D models, digital elevation or surface models and aerial or oblique images. There is a direct correlation between the deliverables and the type of UAS that is selected because of the payload-carrying capabilities. Payloads may include metric or non-metric digital cameras, LiDAR sensors, video cameras and thermal sensors, along with GPS and IMU (inertial measurement unit).
There are rotary, blimp, and fixed wing types of UAS, with sizes ranging from micro (< 1 pound) and small (1-10 lbs), up to large for military use. Besides size and payloads, other variables include maximum altitude, weather constraints, duration of flight time and command and control technology. Although UAS are less expensive to operate as compared to aircraft, prices for a UAS with cameras and sensors suitable for high-quality aerial mapping and surveying can run as high as $200,000. It’s good to know ahead of time whether the projects you intend to pursue can be accomplished with a lower priced UAS that might have a maximum flight time of 30 minutes while carrying a 1-pound payload, as opposed to needing a high-end platform with advanced capabilities.

A few other considerations involve staffing and training. The typical UAS crew for mapping and survey work consists of a pilot in charge (operator), observer(s), a land surveyor, and an image/data processing specialist. If existing staff does not have the minimum flight ground school training for pilot and observer, as well as training on the UAS, the payloads, and general aerial photography techniques, additional expenses will be incurred. For mapping projects, the team also needs a land surveyor with general surveying experience and standard equipment to establish ground control points.

Last but not least—where are you going to store the UAS and how will you get the UAS to the job site? Although most UAS are fairly compact and fit in several large cases, facilities for your UAS should include space for layout, set-up, and repair work. Transportation to the job sites should accommodate 2-4 people plus additional equipment such as a launcher, surveying equipment, spare parts, etc.

Strategic business planning and thorough research of the options related to commercial UAV operations will help business owners purchase the equipment that best fits their needs. “After talking with a number of knowledgeable mapping folks, it is clear to me that incorporating UAS into existing operations requires careful planning prior to the purchase,” said Southard. “One size does not fit all, so weighing all of the options for different capabilities is absolutely necessary to be able to produce the desired deliverables.”