Let’s get it on the table: Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) have the potential to be disruptive technology of the same magnitude as the geospatial industry experienced with GNSS and robotic total stations. There are two reasons for this. First, UAS can collect large amounts of data in a short time and at a low cost. Second, and more importantly, data from UAS can be quickly processed, analyzed and delivered to the people who need the information. These benefits drive greater efficiency for geospatial professionals and their clients.

Why all the excitement?

UAS for geospatial applications consist of small aircraft fitted with GNSS and orientation sensors, high-resolution cameras and various systems for communications and flight control. The aircraft can weigh less than 5.5 pounds (2.5 kg) and can fit into a large suitcase. Launched from a small catapult, the electrically powered aircraft automatically flies a preprogrammed route to collect aerial images. It then lands at a designated location.

While the aircraft operates autonomously, it is in constant communication with the operator on the ground. Additional control and safety functions are provided by radio links from a rugged tablet. Typical flights laser about 45 minutes, and images from multiple flights can be combined to cover large areas.

The typical geospatial UAS uses standard concepts of aerial imaging and photogrammetry. Because the aircraft operates at low altitudes, it can produce high-resolution images and dense, precise datasets. It’s easy to configure and operate, which makes it possible to use on short notice and at a low cost.

While the unmanned aircraft is an essential part of the system, the real value of a UAS comes from the desktop software that compiles the photos and produces 3D data. Prior to UAS, photogrammetric processing was a complex process that relied on highly specialized technicians and workstation software. Recent advances in software technology have helped move photogrammetric processing into the mainstream of geospatial data processing and analysis. Today’s desktop software combines aerial images with raw survey data from GNSS, total stations and leveling to produce orthophotos and 3D points and surfaces for modeling and data extraction.

Courtesy, Trimble Navigation 

A "pilot" at a construction site flies the Trimble UX5 aerial imaging rover over the site to gather images.

The information from UAS can be readily shared with other software and users for design, engineering, GIS and enterprise management. For example, UAS desktop software can process images to produce a point cloud with point spacing of less than 0.2 feet (roughly 5 centimeters). That information becomes the basis for precise digital terrain models.

By “draping” the aerial images over the terrain models, technicians can produce photorealistic 3D depictions of a site. From there, engineers can utilize the image and 3D points for volume and design computations. Airborne imagery captured over time can be fed to feature extraction software for use in change detection and related applications.

Rapid Payoff Gained For Unmanned Aerial Data

To understand the economic benefits, let’s look at a few applications. The flexibility and low cost of the small, fixed-wing aircraft makes it possible to gather more data at shorter intervals. This can result in better models and more timely analyses of progress or change on a site.

• Construction sites with significant grading require frequent measurement for volume computations and project management. A UAS can replace ground surveys and provide more data at shorter intervals for lower overall cost. For example, a construction site for a nuclear power station in the United Kingdom uses a UAS to conduct weekly surveys of the 370-acre site. When compared to ground surveys, the UAS has reduced costs by a factor of 20 with no reduction in quality.

• Open pit mines and quarries require regular measurement to monitor and control production and construction activities. Rather than infrequent flights by conventional aircraft, a UAS can provide timely information on a landscape that changes daily. Data can be gathered at intervals of weeks rather than months and at lower cost. At a nickel mine in New Caledonia, a UAS produces digital elevation models at one-quarter of the cost of traditional surveying and airplane mapping and with better spatial resolution and accuracy.

• In agricultural operations, a UAS can provide timely information on crop conditions and yields. Visible and near-infrared imaging can be used to evaluate crop health. This information helps farmers manage the use of fertilizer and other additives. Because the UAS can cover large areas, the cost for data collection and management goes down.


Courtesy, Trimble Navigation

A Trimble UX5 aerial imaging system took this photograph over a mining operation.

• For disaster management and response, a UAS can quickly deliver accurate information to emergency managers. Flooding in the Czech Republic earlier this year forced thousands to evacuate their homes and businesses. UASs carried out low-level flights in hilly terrain to monitor the impact. The speed and flexibility of UAS can help collect timely data related to landslides, wildfires or other natural events.

• A UAS also makes a significant contribution to safety. The airborne cameras help eliminate the need for survey personnel to enter areas that may be dangerous due to environmental hazards, geological conditions or activity by heavy machinery.

Unmanned systems are changing the workflow of geospatial professionals. In a single mission, a UAS gathers far more information in much less time than can be collected with traditional surveys. Most of the UAS data-processing takes place in the office, where it is typically faster and at a lower cost than in the field. Once gathered, images can be saved for multiple uses. For example, a set of photos originally collected to calculate volumes could be used to measure additional features or conditions. The additional information can be developed without the time and cost of sending a crew back to the site.

Putting UAS into Your Business Plan

Here’s the key point to remember: An unmanned aerial system can be tightly linked to other geospatial tools. By using a UAS that is integrated with other geospatial technologies (GNSS, total stations, GIS data collection and ground-based photogrammetry), you are creating new value for your business.

Rather than providing images and maps, you can analyze and model the data to produce information tailored to your client’s needs and applications. The flexibility and cost-benefit ratio of UAS over traditional surveying techniques is exceptional.

Aerial mapping is no longer the exclusive province of large or specialized firms. As UAS technology takes hold around the world (and regulations in the United States catch up), business opportunities will expand.

Unmanned aircraft systems will give a competitive edge to companies that proactively seek ways to utilize them. As you look at your operation, it’s likely that you will discover several ways that a UAS can help your business. Opportunities like this don’t fly past very often.