I remember receiving a press release and invitation to attend a proof of concept in the Nevada desert. On display would be a receiver that could accurately show its position through triangulation between transponders in the nearby mountains. It was meant to simulate what could be accomplished with the company’s technology and a series of geostationary satellites. I wasn’t able to attend, but I kept my eyes open to see what would come of this intriguing concept. It’s hard to imagine today’s GPS from those humble beginnings.

Small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (sUAV) have already gotten well past the proof-of-concept stage and have even entered into the “popular toy” stage. What has constrained their usefulness for commercial applications in mapping and surveying has been largely regulatory, though there are some technology issues as well.

GPS required quite a lot of very expensive infrastructure before it could be viable. My first GPS was a developer’s circuit board connected to a laptop computer, and there weren’t enough satellites visible to get a location. Fortunately, the Department of Defense saw the potential and the infrastructure evolved quickly. Then it was just a process of miniaturizing and improving the technology. The only real quasi-regulatory constraint was that DoD reserved the highest levels of accuracy for military use. When that changed, GPS became a disruptive influence in land surveying. (Some say positive, some say negative, but disruptive just the same.)

The parallel with sUAS is that some of the constraints with payload will ultimately be dealt with – either through changes in the regulations on commerccial sUAVs or technological advance, or both. This will eliminate many of the technical arguments over whether sUAVs can be accurate enough for mapping and land surveying use. With data comparable to what you can get from a conventional aircraft or terrestrial sensor, sUAS could become as common in the surveyor’s tool kit as GPS, total stations, robots and other current technologies.

The Federal Aviation Administration has been very responsive to the rise of sUAS and to the groups representing surveying and geospatial interests. The FAA has said it will continue to work closely with stakeholders to evolve its rules to meet commercial users’ needs.

The way forward looks positive, so POB has devoted a lot of real estate in this issue to provide up-to-date information on the new regulations, applications and other views on sUAS. This marks a new beginning, not a dramatic shift in focus. We will continue to provide a mix of technologies, tools and tales of land surveying, but at this point in time, developments in this one area demanded some added attention.

There are still issues surveyors will have to confront. We hear the “anyone with a GPS” concerns, and believe the profession has to add “anyone with a drone” to the list of those practicing surveying without a license. There are privacy debates and state rules vs. federal preemption that will occupy a lot of resources.

In the context of today and tomorrow, our best advice is to keep up with developments and support those efforts that will benefit the use of sUAVs in land surveying.


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