In our experience implementing UAV mapping operations for surveyors, civil engineers, public works departments, photogrammetrists and others, the most critical lesson we have learned is the importance of starting simply.

With the evolution of UAV technology, every component of the UAV ecosystem has become significantly more user-friendly. However, this does not change the fact that integrating a UAV into a company’s operations involves a lot of change, and a lot to learn.

Time-strapped staff need to learn a new tool and workflow, and business leads need to learn how to reallocate resources to support it. A company starting a UAV program is most likely to succeed if it focuses on minimizing the amount of change, and that’s a lesson that has to be embraced at once.

The lofty promises of UAV technology can make it tempting to try to pursue every possibility at the same time, or to buy the highest-end technology available. The companies that wind up being most successful, however, are those that identify the simplest objective they can accomplish by UAV, and the simplest technology that can accomplish it. This discipline enables them to prove the viability of the technology for their work, and prove the return on investment as quickly as possible.

A Minimum Viable Drone Program

Taking a “minimum viable” approach to incorporating new technology like UAVs ensures that a company can learn and benefit while minimizing risk and cost. A minimum viable UAV program optimizes for four variables:

  1. Low cost
  2. Minimal learning curve
  3. High-value deliverables
  4. Scalable to more units or advanced capabilities

Minimizing cost and learning curve mitigates the risk and investment of money and time. In order to assess the value of a new technology, however, the company also needs to be able to assess the value of the deliverable it creates to determine ROI. Finally, the benefit is maximized if the program sets the foundation so that it can be scaled up once ROI has been proven and staff have gained basic proficiency.

Creating The Simplest Deliverables

The staggering variety of UAV technology is capable of producing a broad variety of deliverables. The best way for surveyors to start is a step above the consumer level with a “pro-sumer” grade UAV controlled by autopilot software, and to produce 3D surface models and 2D orthophotos. The autopilot software controls the UAV as it flies in a lawn-mower pattern over a site, taking photos with high overlap. Processing software then stitches these photos together into a single orthorectified 2D photograph and a 3D model of the site. This processing software is technical enough that we recommend outsourcing it while staff is learning the UAV workflow.

Once the 3D model is produced, simple and inexpensive software enables surveyors to create a CAD or ESRI-compatible survey-grade deliverable incredibly efficiently — our clients report 60 percent time savings on most jobs. A surveyor needs to simply click to create points and draw break lines directly on the 3D model. This process produces a surface, replacing the time-intensive work of walking a grid and occupying points with GPS. In addition to saving time, this process enables surveyors to complete aerial mapping jobs themselves, saving the money that would go to outsourced aerial contractors. Using the UAV also means that surveyors collect a verifiable record of every site, minimizing the risk of missing shots in the field.

Avoiding The High-End Tech Trap

It can be tempting to think that the most strategic approach is to purchase the most cutting-edge equipment available, thus “future-proofing” against continued technology development. There are two reasons we recommend against this approach with UAVs: high-end technology requires a steeper learning curve, and a larger investment creates the pressure to use the equipment more than is advisable.

Counter-intuitive though it may be, the more expensive a UAV is, the more complex it usually is to learn and use. We have heard the same story several times from prospective clients: management decides to make a major investment in cutting-edge UAV technology, and the return on that investment has been countless headaches and an expensive office decoration. Very few survey teams can afford to take field staff away from weeks of money-making projects in order for them to learn a new tool. Diving straight into the deep end with complex, specialized UAV equipment is unnecessary and rarely pays off.

Beyond the pressure to learn new technology, firms that invest in expensive technology face an additional pressure: using it. If a firm starts out with the most expensive tool, they have to use it as much as possible, even when it’s not the right tool for the job. Worse, the need to justify the large expense can pressure staff to use it before they are fully comfortable doing so in front of clients. Diving straight into the deep end can lead to significant reputational risk.

Set A Foundation

When making an initial UAV investment, we recommend thinking in terms of starting a complete UAV program. This includes the UAV, as well as the additional equipment and software that enables it, securing insurance, navigating the regulatory compliance process, and training staff on the workflow and procedures. By creating a UAV program with this initial investment, an organization creates the foundation that can be built upon once staff has gained proficiency and the ROI has been proven.