Whether you call yourself a surveyor, a geomatics professional or a geospatial data manager, the boundaries and scope of your work and the technologies you use have changed dramatically in the last several years. It is now feasible for a single business to possess much more than just one or two work tools, such as total stations and GPS. Indeed, some firms are now blending technologies to improve how they can deliver value. For example, photography can be combined with either terrestrial or aerial laser scanning to provide a detail-rich dataset. The results of this combination have data consumers begging for more. Where will this pace of innovation take us?

Consider unmanned airborne systems (also called UAVs or drones). These small fixed- or rotary-wing aircraft can be flown manually or, with rigorous flight planning, can be used as mapping robots that follow a designated flight plan to get coverage of an area of interest. They are being used as platforms for imaging of various types; the most common so far is visible light photography, although other types of sensors are also being developed and used.

The UAS technology offers greater reach beyond conventional surveying and mapping techniques due to its portability and flexibility and relatively fewer physical restrictions than conventional photogrammetry. UASs can provide higher-density, rapid planimetric and topographic information for situations involving change tracking and management in mines, quarries, construction projects — especially the sitework parts. UASs can help businesses expand their presence because they can now map areas that were previously cost prohibitive. Although UASs are not a substitute for conventional aerial photogrammetry, they enable photogrammetric measurements of areas that would be considered too small because of high mobilization costs.

In the United States, current FAA regulations make it virtually impossible for non-governmental entities to use and operate UASs. Even permitted government entities have to be patient, enterprising, diligent, creative and willing to change operational paradigms. Fortunately, there are various predictions about changes that are more supportive of the private use of UASs (which will still be necessarily a regulated activity) in the months ahead. Without the FAA’s current restrictions, the mindset for flight safety and photogrammetric integration will serve as a weeding out process that will favor the successful use of unmanned airborne systems.

The UAS technology requires a shift in thinking about how work is done. Flying objects in airspace involves a continuous commitment to training and operations in a way that many businesses will find foreign. UASs require understanding the technology — both the platform (the aircraft) and the measurement technology that is used to process the imagery and other data. Businesses that have been able to get by without a thorough understanding of the technologies they currently use will not find UASs so forgiving. But for those who dare to explore new frontiers, the sky is the limit.