Is there a mapping drone in your future?

by Matt Ball on March 16, 2012

Wasn’t it just yesterday that the idea of unmanned aerial platforms seemed like science fiction? With the successful deployment of drones for recent military operations, the technology has come a long way in a short period of time. While the image of the bubble-headed armed aircraft-sized drone platform is etched in our minds, these sensing platforms come in all sizes and shapes, and include helicopter and quadcopter configurations that have exciting agility as well as the ability to hover in the same place for a long time.

Small drones are set to fill earth observation gaps at a very low cost, with low barriers to purchase and operate, and great flexibility in terms of the sensors they can carry, where they can travel, and how quickly they can be deployed. While in most cases the image quality won’t be equal to the task of professional commercial systems, there are a wide range of applications that will benefit without the need for high resolution or a mapping-grade view. On the other end, field data collection for mapping and surveying stands to benefit greatly from this technology for the same reasons of inexpensive operation and added flexibility, with sensors improving as the demand grows.

Opening Opportunities

With the passing of a recent bill in the United States that calls for the Federal Aviation Administration to integrate unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the national airspace system by 2015, the widespread use of drones is imminent. Industry advocacy groups have long been clamoring for such language, and with the technology proliferating, it has just been a matter of time for the regulations to lift.  Small craft under 55 lbs. are prioritized in the bill, with language that allows them to fly within 27 months, and allows for them to be flown in the U.S. Arctic within one year. Under the bill, first responders will be allowed to fly UAS of 4.4 pounds or less within 90 days, prioritizing their assistance in saving lives and increasing public safety. The bill also exempts model aircraft that weigh less than 55lbs as long as they follow safety standards.

With these types of devices that travel and collect in the three-dimensional realm, the data that they provide will feed whole new visualization capabilities. With extensive observations from all angles, we can expect a more virtual interface to our captured surroundings that is within the grasp of more and more people. The applications for commercial purposes are extensive, and will provide distinct advantages in such areas as infrastructure construction, environmental monitoring, agriculture, forestry, and coastal management.

Extendible Tech

There’s a DIY vibe to a lot of drone projects, because the technology is within reach for most hobbyists or research labs to create a low-cost, albeit low-resolution, mapping platform. With this low cost to build and operate comes a whole new level of mapping and monitoring. The drones can carry any number of sensors, from digital cameras, video, and even DIY hyperspectral sensors.

While the hobbyists are getting involved, there is also a very healthy commercial market for both aerial platforms and sensors. The military continues to lead the development and deployment of this technology, continuously pushing the envelope because of the importance of situational awareness for the success of operations, particularly in complex urban settings. According to a recent industry report from IHS Jane’s, there are 50 countries that currently operate UAVs, but the United States is expected to maintain a dominant development role with 60 percent of the market through 2020.

Privacy Backlash

While the coming swarms of drones seems imminent, there are several challenges that they may need to overcome, including the threat to privacy. Those in the geospatial industry are accustomed to fielding concerns based on people’s impressions that imagery satellites can see into your back yard right now in order to monitor you. With the coming of drones, what has been myth and paranoia will become reality.

There are those that find a peace of mind, knowing that there is surveillance and believing that all applications have a beneficial motive. Regulation and codes of conduct will need to be worked out in order for peace of mind to proliferate, and for our airspace to remain productive.

There are a number of mapping drones on the market now, and that number will certainly increase. Today’s handheld devices provide great productivity enhancement, and have become adjuncts to our workflows and data collection capabilities. Just imagine what it would be like to have your own personal drone, with the connectivity and computing power of your phone, hovering above and enhancing your perspective. It might not be that far of a stretch, considering the rapid explosion of personal digital video cameras (such as helmet cams for recording sports) that prove an insatiable appetite for fresh perspectives on our recorded existence.

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