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Drones and LIDAR pump up aerial surveying and mapping

One might think that maybe, just maybe, advancing technology would not disrupt the age-old, venerated profession of land surveying in the U.S. After all, Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were surveyors as young men, and President Thomas Jefferson was one generally throughout his life.

Alas (but to a great extent thankfully), miniaturized digital hardware, robust geographic information services (GIS) and nimble and inexpensive remote sensing devices have foisted due disruption on the profession popular among presidents. Especially when it comes to aerial surveying common today.

New technology such as drones and laser imaging, detection and ranging (LIDAR) data acquisition devices have drastically lowered the barriers to entry for entrepreneurs and business. The simpler, lower-cost technology for aerial surveying has merely paced the simpler, lower-cost baseline computer workstation technology required to start any new technical services business now.

Roughly 20 years ago, the IBM PC and Apple Macintosh had already been spreading and evolving rapidly in the market for a decade or more. Large sums were needed just to fashion a service business around those items — like, say, a retail desktop publishing venture serving local businesses and residents.

It usually required five-figure capital. The money went for several PCs, a scanner, a printer and higher-end desktop optical character recognition (OCR) and page layout software.

Likewise in the case of an aerial surveying service: Capital aplenty was needed to purchase expensive manned aircraft, large-format cameras and high-end enterprise computers (to crunch all of the topographic photos and imaging data) — according to a recent report in Point of Beginning (POB) magazine.

Today, low-cost drones, aerial laser scanners and streamlined mapping software functionally zoom past manned aircraft (with their safety issues and higher costs) and more standard mapping methods. For only a modest four- or five-digit sum, a surveyor can put a capable high-resolution camera (for photogrammetry) or laser scanner (for LIDAR) aloft on an inexpensive drone, collect high-resolution 3-D data, and produce maps with readily available software.

Although manned aircraft are generally superior for aerial mapping of larger areas, such as cities of perhaps a million people or more, drones remain disruptive change agents. A separate editorial post in POB, for example, points to new technology that allows a drone operator-surveyor to create real-time maps in the field on an iPhone or other iOS device.

The report also cites and quotes industry stakeholders who vow that drones will foster new mapping services that manned aircraft simply can’t address cost-effectively. For example, for operations that require or can significantly benefit from multiple flyovers, drones fill the bill much better than manned aircraft.

Hence the industry’s efforts to usher in new federal regulations permitting so-called beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS) operations — wherein a remote pilot needn’t keep the UAV in visual line-of-sight at all times. Last year, a White House press release claimed the Trump administration was taking pains to promote testing that might eventually lift the regulations against flying drones at night and above public gatherings, too.

But make no mistake: The advent of GIS and GPS technology since the mid-1990s has also evolved the industry — perhaps more disruptively than innovation disrupts business generally.

At the time, manned aircraft and film cameras were more de rigueur. So deliverables required more time and labor. GPS technology then emerged. On its heels came computer-driven, “soft-copy” photogrammetry from scanned film, followed by direct digital data acquisition.

Before long, in the early aughts, a modest-sized aerial survey firm such as Keystone Aerial Surveys, Inc., with a fleet of roughly 20 aircraft and three locations had accelerated its deliverables from many months or weeks to just a few.

Now, the firm can complete statewide, high-resolution data acquisition projects in a few weeks and send along its deliverables in several months. Certain computer algorithms are key, providing “semi-global matching” and “structure from motion,” which enables the use of small consumer cameras on either manned aircraft or UAVs.

Basically, the profession has enjoyed the fruits of miniaturization, reduced costs and economies of scale at the same time as there is some apprehension among surveyors that automation, satellites and tech will utterly replace them.

However, one thing is clear: More advanced capabilities of aerial surveying, once the domain of veteran surveyors only, have been radically democratized. There has been exponential growth in mapping applications, thanks to the disruption posed by drones and specialized programs incorporating both photogrammetric and LIDAR data for aerial surveying.

Published on March 27, 2018 by Bill Becken on

By | 2018-04-04T00:52:24-06:00 June 11th, 2018|Drone, Land Survey|