Ten years ago, surveying and mapping were two different activities for surveying firms. Surveyors went into the field and collected data at physical sites. They then went back to the office with a set of discrete points that were turned into maps. Meanwhile, airborne mapping was performed by LiDAR and photogrammetry pros. The end-to-end surveying operation required collaboration between many different disciplines and personnel. It extended the timelines of surveying projects and didn’t always prove to be cost-effective.
“After working 25 years in the geomatics field, there was always the promise of a single tool that could do everything, handling all of the workflows with the push of one button,” says Mike Hogan, sales director at Microdrones, which provides drones for mapping and aerial inspection.
The idea of a single press of a button is nice, but when it comes down to how surveying firms have been doing business — and continue to do business — improving performance and project turnarounds with new tools like drones also requires re-education. “This is one reason we put a target on communicating actively with our users and focusing on education as well as on delivering technology,” Hogan says.
Here are some of the hurdles to drone adoption in the surveying industry.
In the U.S., FAA-mandated drone pilot certifications, airspace restrictions below certain altitude levels, and property rights and privacy issues still hinder widespread drone adoption in surveying. In the case of property and privacy rights, these issues might take some time to resolve, since legal rulings always lag technology evolution.
Drone battery life and fly time, the ability to carry heavier equipment such as LiDAR devices, and the ability to collect and store vast troves of incoming data all present a unique set of challenges.
“We are now integrating smaller sensors and more lightweight LiDAR devices. This lessens the load for the drone,” Hogan says. “With the help of drones, companies can now also collect data on smaller ‘micro’ areas that airborne vehicles could never access.”
The cost of commercial drones is coming down, but when you combine this with the software and the education needed, drone adoption is still a “wish” for smaller surveying firms. “This is changing,” notes Hogan. “You might need $35,000 to $40,000 for hardware, and your costs could range up to $250,000, depending upon what you need to do—but drone technology is becoming more affordable and also easier to use.”
“The acquisition of important geospatial skills is what we see most lacking in companies,” Hogan says. “It’s easy to fly drones, but managing and integrating the data that you collect from them requires training and experience, as well as the ability to select the right tools to work with the data… In the surveying field, what we find is that if you have already adopted best practices for surveying, it’s easy to transform this know-how into working with drones and managing the geospatial data that drones collect.”
We can anticipate that barriers will be cleared to provide a path for more commercial drone use and that costs will continue to fall, so what should surveying firms be doing now?
#1: Prepare a plan.
“It’s not too early to start thinking about technology such as drones and how you might incorporate them into your operations,” Hogan says. “The main thing is not to be fearful about new processes.”
#2: Quality assurance and quality control should be part of your thought process.
“Firms considering using drones should be focused on keeping their equipment well-maintained. They should also check the quality of the data they collect,” Hogan says. “Before processing your data, ensure that its quality is good. Then, map it. It’s equally important to include quality assurance steps throughout your data collection and processing processes. You want to avoid a data “garbage in, garbage out” result.”
#3: Talk with others that have traveled the road you are embarking on.
There are early adopters that are already using drones in their surveying work, and have already identified best tools and practices. Reach out to them. Chances are, they will be more than willing to share with you what really worked — and what didn't.