Like other geospatial service providers, Aerial Services Inc., based in Cedar Falls, Iowa, takes pride in its fleet of single-engine, twin-engine and helicopter aircraft, equipped with the latest digital and LiDAR sensors and airborne GPS systems. The company recently made a substantial investment in a RIEGL VQ-480 airborne LiDAR scanner, which can be mounted on fixed-wing aircraft and helicopter platforms to provide high-speed data acquisition using a narrow infrared laser beam and a fast line scanning mechanism. According to Mike Tully, president and CEO, the purchase was in line with the company’s goal of being one of the premier high-accuracy geospatial providers in the United States.

That same goal is driving Tully to look ahead to a time in the not-too-distant future when manned aircraft and large sensors may be grounded in favor of lightweight unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). “UAVs are going to play an extremely important part in remote sensing in the next 5 to 10 years,” he says. “I would refer to it as very disruptive technology for the remote sensing field of science. My gut feeling is that UAVs will eventually displace manned aircraft for almost all applications.”

Despite his vested interest in traditional technology, Tully sees the coming shift as an opportunity. Through Aerial Services’ long-term participation in an internship program at the University of Northern Iowa, the firm is well positioned to participate in the university’s research on UAVs as part of the Iowa Space Grant Consortium, funded by NASA. Commercial entities are currently prohibited by FAA regulations from operating unmanned aircraft, a restriction that isn’t likely to be fully lifted until at least 2015; however, universities and government agencies that receive a certificate of authorization (COA) are allowed to fly small devices weighing less than 55 pounds. The University of Northern Iowa has both a COA and a UAV, and Tully is actively involved in exploring the technology.

“We want to understand what these small sensors are capable of doing, how to process the data, what’s important and what’s not in aircraft design, how long and how high they can fly, what types of engines they use, and what materials they’re made out of,” Tully says. “We also want to learn more about hyperspectral imagery, which will become increasingly important when UAVs are commonplace. By understanding the technology, we’ll be able to make informed purchasing decisions when we can use them commercially.”

Tully recently hired an intern through UNI to conduct an extensive market survey of small commercial UAS (under 55 pounds) in the United States. The survey, which will be the subject of a presentation at the upcoming MAPPS and ASPRS joint conference in Tampa, Fla., revealed substantial diversity in UAS design, which is typical of any new industry. However, as the industry matures, Tully expects the systems to become more standardized and more durable. He also believes that software will play a key role in the commercial application of these systems.

“By the time we’re able to commercially use unmanned vehicles, I fully anticipate that we’ll be beaming imagery straight from the aircraft to a computer for processing, and it will probably be in the cloud somewhere,” he says. “It will be processed and delivered to the client within minutes of when it was actually acquired. We’re using software today with our big sensors that do all of this, and they’re very fast and scalable. Much of that software will be able to be used for imagery from these smaller sensors.”

The shift will take time. Tully believes it could be 15 years or more before traditional equipment and methods become truly obsolete. But professionals who rely on these systems for their business would do well to take note of the coming revolution. “Our focus should be moving away from data collection and toward information management,” Tully says. “Every UAV that goes up is going to be producing far more data, and we’re going to need to develop software and tools to exploit that ocean of data to make sense out of it and provide useful information to people. Our end users don’t want data; they don’t want pixels and points. They want to understand the contours, how much volume is here or there, or where the encroachment is in a corridor. To be able to manage that information and massage the data into valuable information is going to be very important. It’s a huge opportunity for geospatial professionals.”