While protesters from the group Code Pink gathered outside the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International's (AUVSI's) Unmanned Systems conference in Washington in August, a silent war of words raged inside the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. It started in the media room, where white pieces of paper displayed the WiFi code for journalists—“DONTSAYDRONES”—that underscored the problems facing the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in the United States.
For the geospatial community, the problems go beyond public perception and into reality. For now, private-sector professionals in the United States are in limbo. The Federal Aviation Administration will announce six test sites for UAS by the end of 2013, and the agency is supposed to establish regulations to integrate civilian use into the airspace within the next two years. But some attendees at the AUVSI conference expressed doubts that the FAA would meet the 2015 deadline.
Despite the challenges, unmanned aircraft systems offer a world of potential, not just to the geospatial community but also to many in the private sector. According to an AUVSI report in March 2013, more than 70,000 jobs and approximately $13.6 billion will be added to the economy in the first three years UAS are integrated into the airspace.
There appears to be demand, too. More than 8,000 people attended this year’s AUVSI conference, and more than 590 exhibitors had booths at the show—records for the event. And while a large portion of the conference catered to the defense industry, many said that the civilian sector had an increased presence at this year’s event. American Aerospace, Esri, SBG-Systems, Riegl, Trimble and Visual Intelligence were among the companies representing the geospatial community in Washington.
In addition, many attendees at a MAPPS Policy Lunch also expressed interest in expanding into UAS once they are integrated into the airspace. UAS offer advantages in speed, efficiency, safety and access into difficult-to-reach areas on some projects, and the systems could change the shape of some professions.
Edouard Guilhot-Gaudeffroy, the vice president of the French company Workfly, believes they could be transformative. “The drone today will be the revolution of tomorrow,” says Guilhot-Gaudeffroy, who estimates that civilian use accounts for 80 percent of the work done by UAS worldwide.
That potential needs a voice to counteract the negative public perception of UAS, according to Pierre le Roux of Aerometric Inc. He believes geospatial professionals should stop relying on the media and take the initiative by spreading the good news about unmanned aircraft systems. “First, you need to get your community on board,” Le Roux says. “As a community, then we have to step out wide.”
Words come first. At the AUVSI conference and at other forums, the use of “drone” has become taboo because of the negative connotations the word carries. Drone is a “dirty word,” said Michael Maes, the UAS flight operations manager at Trimble, and he and many others prefer to use the term unmanned aircraft systems.
Imagery may be just as important as language. The public may need to see more examples of how UASs are used in civilian situations—for tasks such as surveying, mapping and engineering—and fewer examples of how the systems are used for military strikes or law-enforcement surveillance. “Because surveying and surveillance are two different things, there is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding in the public,” Maes said during his presentation, “Use of Very Small UAS for Precise Feature Collection Applications” at AUVSI.
Maes’s colleague, Rob Miller, the UAS portfolio manager at Trimble, believes that UASs are “another tool in the surveyor’s toolbox.” Unmanned technology complements traditional survey and traditional photogrammetry. Trimble, in fact, is ready to take off with its Trimble UX5 aerial imaging solution, offering a complete “turnkey”workflow from beginning to end. Trimble already has taken to the skies as companies have used their instruments for unmanned projects in Asia, Australia, Canada, Europe and South America. The Gatewing X100 an earlier Trimble UAS, was used to survey an open-pit mine in Namibia. Trimble UAS were used for an initial aerial survey to plan a road interchange in Belgium and for a contour map of a castle in Sweden to look for erosion of the historic landmark.
“It’s many of the same applications, but we’re collecting the data with an aircraft platform at altitude rather than on the ground,” Miller says. He notes that unmanned systems are quicker, safer and more efficient for projects that don’t require centimeter-level accuracy.
Lance Brady of the Bureau of Land Management echoed Miller’s sentiments. In his presentation at the AUVSI conference (“Use of Unmanned Aerial Systems and Close Range Photogrammetry Techniques”), Brady said that UASs save the department money, provide flexibility and, most importantly, enhance safety. And because the BLM is a government agency, it is able to obtain certificates of (waiver) authorization (COAs) to conduct unmanned aircraft projects in the United States. Thus far, the BLM has used unmanned aircraft to offer mission support for wildfires, law enforcement, cadastral survey, aerial mapping and range survey. Brady says that UASs improve the quality of data for the Land Bureau by providing unbiased sampling (allowing for sampling of areas that are difficult to access), greater precision and better documentation.
The Land Bureau’s use of unmanned aircraft shows the possibilities of the technologies.
What is the future for UAS? Of course, much will depend on the shape of regulations still to come from the FAA and any possible legislation from Congress. In the meantime, though, professionals can prepare for the technology. “I think right now, it’s about education,” Miller says. “If this becomes a viable application, you need to learn how you can use it.”
With policies and privacy issues still undecided in the United States, perceptions of UAS need to be challenged, according to le Roux, Maes and many others in the geospatial profession. While the sky may be the limit for the technology, the future for unmanned aircraft is still up in the air.