Jul 01 2013
by Matt Ball
Geospatial vendors in the United States wait rather impatiently as the Federal Aviation Administration works on regulations that will allow the use of drones or unmanned aerial systems for commercial applications. While research and development is ongoing, other countries stand to make a leap ahead where there are fewer regulations, despite the fact that much of the technology development has come about thanks to heavy use of these technologies by the American military.
There are a burgeoning number of aerial drone platforms, including a very active do-it-yourself community (diydrones.com). The machines are becoming more robust, with abilities to accommodate heavier payloads for longer flight times. There are also new sensors and systems that are being tailored for specific applications, taking away technical barriers by automating both the flight and data processing, and returning intelligence that can be acted upon.
Given the growing interest, and the ability for these tools to address new areas of application, it’s fitting to survey the top markets, the advantage, and the sensors that provide new insight in a wide area of application.
- Agriculture - The Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) reports that the agricultural use of drones could comprise 80% of the market. The reasons include the need to closely monitor crops to improve management and yield, the need to do this more regularly and cheaply, and the environment of private land with little threat to others. Near-infrared sensors can be tuned to detect crop health, letting farmers react and improve conditions locally with inputs of fertilizer or insecticide.
- Mines - Mining companies are already deploying drones worldwide with great efficiency and safety gains to accurately measure site conditions, inspect pit walls, calculate quantities, and measure and map in 3D. Photogrammetric techniques are used for 3D modeling to date, however more precise laser LiDAR sensors for UAV platforms will be developed in time.
- Construction Sites - The monitoring from above of construction project sites provides a new input during all phases of a project lifecycle. Aerial photography is done now for only the largest projects, however the input would be used more widely and more frequently if more readily accessible. The ability to quickly model from above in 3D with increasing precision will provide a check on projects with as-builts compared to plans, as well as the better coordination of materials on the job site.
- Infrastructure Inspection - From pipelines to powerlines, to towers, to processing plants, the inspection of complex infrastructure will benefit from regular aerial monitoring. The ability to sense in three dimensions, take thermal readings, and to detect metal strain will greatly improve infrastructure inspection. Small and unmanned platforms that can hover and get close and surround infrastructure, such as a bridge or plant, will provide a new level of detail to improve performance.
- Wildlife Research - Drones are being used internationally to monitor and track wildlife, providing new insight into animal behavior, as well as protection from poachers. With the ability to operate at night, and with thermal camera sensors, drones provide unprecedented protection.
- Prospecting - Mineral and oil and gas exploration is a natural fit for drones, with field prospectors extending their toolset with aerial sensors to confirm and expand their insight. Magnetometers on aerial platforms can be used to detect ferrous metals and gravitational fields, with less of a disturbance due to their size.
- Storm Tracking/Forecasting - Sending drones into hurricanes and tornadoes provides new insight into their behavior and trajectory. Unmanned systems are the best approach to these dangerous situations, and with specialized sensors to detail weather parameters, new insight becomes possible.
- Emergency Response - After a natural or manmade disaster, a drone provides a quick means to gather information, navigate debris with a portable and useful technology that doesn’t drown out cries for help, and that can be deployed by teams that are working a specific area.
- Environmental Monitoring - Drones fill a gap between manned aerial inspections and traditional fieldwork, monitoring hard to reach areas, or taking reading in contaminated areas where human health would be at risk. The ability to quickly deploy and capture an area of interest in concert with in-situ measurements, provides an advantage to contamination and reclamation work. Near-infrared sensors provide details of plant health to determine environmental health. The site-specific insight will greatly improve habitat restoration, environmental assessments, monitoring, and remediation.
- Search and Rescue - With thermal sensors, drones can quickly discover the location of lost persons, and are particularly useful at night or in challenging terrain. The search and rescue mission is a battle against time, particularly in harsh conditions, and drones become a powerful tool because of the ease of deployment.
Drones provide a paradigm shift for remote sensing, given their portability, low cost of operation, ease of use, and the automation of the analysis. It’s just a matter of time before regulations are lifted, and they are widely used. There are legislative efforts that could dramatically impact their utility, but with a focus on best-use, and with tailored sensor and platforms for these applications, their benefit will be broadly felt without repercussion to privacy.
- Military drones zero in on $400 billion civilian market, by Chris Wicham, Reuters, Nov. 14, 2012.
- Are drones tools of war or a social good?, by Jane Wakefield, TEDGlobal, June 12, 2013
- Bad Laws Would Hurt Good Drones, by Ryan Calo, CNN, March 5, 2013