Drones are being used in aerial photography, real estate, agriculture and filmmaking. At least 20,000 drones are currently registered in the U.S. for commercial use, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) forecasts that by 2025, there will be more than 1 million drone flights per day.
The gathering and use of geospatial information is critical to drone operators, who must have visibility of weather patterns, flight conditions and locations, as well as ground locations that relate to the flight. Capturing this information, which is largely geospatial or geospatially related, and then unifying it into a complete picture for drone operators, has been one of the chief aims of military and government agencies in their drone trials and research.
One company that has partnered with the FAA, NASA and UAS test sites is Simulyze, which produces operational intelligence (OI) technology and applications for federal and commercial organizations. One of the projects the company has been working on has been the creation of a graphical interface for drone operators in the military that incorporates sensor-based geospatial and other information into a 360-degree vision of drone activity. The work that is being done in trials could ultimately be beneficial for operators of commercial drones, such as surveying and construction companies, logistics operators and others.
“We’ve focused on the effective use of sensors and on ongoing development in operational intelligence,” says Kevin Gallagher, president of Simulyze. “Right now, we are working at test sites to see what drone operators are going to need in terms of information that is being made available to them. Today’s FAA guidelines for commercial drones specify that drones must be flown within a line of sight, but we are also looking at what the operators’ needs are going to be beyond the line of sight.”
This means that operators need to be aware of not only what is in the air with the drone, but what is on the ground.
“In the tests we did in New Jersey, the drone needed to stay clear of ferries. You also have to know where boats and towers are,” Gallagher says. “For these applications, we attached GPS devices to vessels and and we brought in regular airspace information.”
Similar information on ground-based structures needs to be integrated into information panels and then overlaid onto maps. Another important factor is flying conditions.
For instance, if you are a surveying company and you are using a small drone that can fly for half an hour, you have to consider factors like the drone having to fly into the wind, which could mean that it will not have enough power left to make it back.
“Real-time weather information that can give you storm data, cloud ceilings, wind velocity and other data is critical to a drone operator,” Gallagher says. “What our aim is is to bring all of this diverse information together into a central console so the operator has everything at his or her fingertips.”
One way to frame the information is in geospatial mapping that can locate and display everything that is going on.
The timing is right for Simulyze and others to perfect drone OI technology because most companies are still not at a point where commercial drone-based operations are being aggressively undertaken. This is because the full commercialization of drones still has regulatory hurdles to overcome in the U.S.
The goal for solidifying these still rather fluid FAA guidelines is some time in 2017. Meanwhile, present guidelines are that a drone must weigh under 55 pounds (including payload and equipment), that it may only be used during daylight hours, that it cannot be operated at altitudes above 500 feet, that it cannot exceed 100 miles per hour in speed, and that its use is restricted to operator line of sight. Drone operators must also be licensed by the FAA, which evaluates each operator application on a case-by-case basis.
What should surveyors and other commercial enterprises planning on using drones in the future be doing now?
“First, figure out the drone platform that you want to use and the capabilities that you are going to need,” Gallagher says. “When you do this, you should research and consider the online tools and services that are available. Second, think about safety. Weather and general airspace conditions can impact the success of your drone mission, so they should be planned for in advance.”