Professional land surveyors have been steadily adopting unmanned aerial vehicles. But why should surveyors view Google's parent, Alphabet, obtaining certification for Wing Aviation, the first “drone” airline, as a boon for surveying?
The most obvious answer is the need for precise georeferencing. This includes individual addresses and other critical infrastructure assets – it’s important to know where those cell towers and power lines are when you’re flying.
What does a commercial UAV delivery service have to do with surveying beyond that? The answer is complex. Here are a few thoughts:
Technological development – A commercial airline will drive more development of commercial solutions. In addition to the commercial UAV suppliers, we’ve already seen DJI expand its “enterprise” offerings that are clearly not hobby drones. It has also added RTK capabilities. Look for improvements in flight time, payload capacity, and command and control systems from all commercial UAV makers. The command and control systems will also be critical in supporting beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) operations that Wing will no doubt push for, both from a regulatory and operational perspective.
Training and licensing – While pilot certification is not a requirement for non-commercial use, it may evolve that there are different classes of operator credentials. This could be especially true as BVLOS rules evolve. A specific BVLOS endorsement may become a requirement and a differentiator among commercial operators. Commercial airlines will attract more people to pursue higher levels of qualifications.
Safety and security – It goes beyond saying that more will be happening with regard to these critical areas. Commercial operators can benefit from BVLOS, night flying and flying over people. The more highly trained and skilled commercial operators will have an advantage, and this will open more business opportunities.
Regulation – Speaking of restrictions, commercial operators should also be an important part in shaping safety, security and privacy regulations. There are currently no airframe safety rules, but should the FAA move in that direction, development costs and aircraft certification costs will rise. A strong commercial base helps ensure manufacturers would be willing to undertake the effort and cost. A solid commercial safety record should help.
Talent and skills – Career opportunities are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, commercial UAV airlines provide real career opportunity. On the other, they compete for the talent that is available, potentially making it harder and more expensive to recruit and retain UAV pilots.
The commercial cargo aviation industry we know today had to evolve from two bolts of silk flown from Dayton to Columbus, Ohio in 1910. It took over a decade until air cargo became commonplace. Commercial UAVs should not need to follow a similar slow process given the number of lessons learned in over a century of powered, manned flight.
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