UAS for Precision Mapping

Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) have become quite a buzz among artsy filmmakers, eager advertisers, real estate gurus, high-tech farmers, stoic men and women who defend us, and concerned citizens everywhere.  Many applications for the technology are obvious and the economic benefits appear legitimate, but a lack of regulations which would enable the industry to grow has impeded the widespread use of the technology.  Inevitably, these barriers will be overcome and those of us in the business of mapping, GIS, remote sensing, and field data collection will rejoice.  Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and the potential for a wide variety of sensor integration offer an effective tool for collecting highly precise georeferenced data in a work flow, turnaround time, and price range that has never before been attainable.

Mapping Applications for UAS

The applications for UAS-based data collection are everywhere.  In precision agriculture, there is added value to imagery if the grower can identify a single unhealthy plant in an infrared photo, note the coordinates, then navigate to that exact plant using a high-precision GNSS receiver in the same day.  Where an open pit mine may have spent thousands of dollars and days of time to have a mine surveyed, volumes calculated, and imagery flown, UAS and sensor technology allow them to provide a comprehensive, higher-quality data set in a fraction of the time.  Utilities may more effectively and safely perform surveys of pipelines and transmission lines.  Biologists may more quickly and accurately count and identify wildlife or classify vegetation to assess habitat.  Foresters may more efficiently analyze timber stands and firefighters may more safely monitor, manage, and remediate wildfires.

UAS operations and data deliverables in an open pit mining application.  Courtesy of Trimble Navigation.
UAS operations and data deliverables (orthophoto and digital surface model) in an open pit mining application.

What better place to store and maintain the data collected than in a GIS?  We are only beginning to scratch the surface of where this technology is useful and how GISers can offer even more value to their organizations with the ability to produce decision-driving aerial data products inside of a 24-hour window instead of weeks or months.  With full system solution such as the Trimble UX5 an entire data collection work flow can be executed from mission planning to data deliverables in a matter of hours.  The immediacy of the data turnaround offers tremendous value for fast-paced working environments like natural disaster response and agriculture where timely data can help make more informed decisions.

Topographic survey derived from UAS collected data.  Courtesy of Trimble Navigation.
Topographic survey derived from UAS collected data.

Lack of Regulation

In the name of public safety the federal agency who rules the US airspace, the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA), has said the rules are clear, no commercial use of UAS!  Despite a National Transportation Safety Board federal judge ruling in a case that the FAA has not gone through the proper legal process to create a regulation allowing them to enforce their no UAS rule, the FAA has dug their heels in like my toddler and said, “No!”  To which the mass of proponents for the industry has been responding in kind, as my toddler would, by putting on the charm and saying, “Pretty pretty please!”

However if you are a public agency (federal, state, or local) or a higher education institution, you are likely eligible to begin using UAS as soon as you can get your hands on a system and apply for a Certificate of Authorization (COA).  COAs are detailed plans of operation which include specific details like timeframe, airframe, purpose, location, and other details on the who, what, when, where, and how a UAV will be used.  Once the FAA approves your application for a COA, you can begin operating the system accordingly.  So lucky you, take advantage and do it!

While the rules and regs surrounding legal use of UAS do add some uncertainty to the situation at present, the FAA does have a plan and a pathway for regulating the operation of UAS in US airspace.  Congress passed a law in 2012 that compels the FAA to do their homework and produce regulations within a certain time period, as soon as September, 2015, or else!

The fastest growing market and user base of UAS falls under the small UAS (sUAS) category which involves UAVs weighing less than 55 pounds.  YouTubers, advertisers, and even mappers would likely be using systems that fall primarily in this category.  Thankfully, sUAS is the first class of aircraft for which the FAA is scheduled to release regulations and a legal path to operate a UAV.  It appears they are making progress and you can find a host of information about what the FAA is doing on their UAS Initiative website.  As recent as last week, they announced in a press release that they will consider an exemption which would allow seven filmmaking companies to use UAS commercially.  The ball game is not over, but at least someone got on first base.

Sensors are the Future

Many GIS and mapping applications demand highly precise spatial accuracy and for anyone who has worked with aerial imagery or other remotely sensed raster data, you probably know that the coordinates for a pixel in your image don’t always match up with the true coordinates of the corresponding feature on the ground, sometimes not by a long shot.  For this reason, land surveyors and GISers have been sitting on the opposite sides of conference rooms for years.  Some of the latest UAS solutions like the UX5 system allow the user to georeference an orthographic image using control points collected with sub-centimeter accuracy GNSS receivers on the ground.  Thanks to sensors on-board the aircraft including GPS, radio communications, and a pitch and roll sensor, these fixed-wing aircraft know right where they are when photos are taken with the integrated high-resolution camera.  Combined with finely engineered artificial intelligence, the UAV becomes a very sophisticated and autonomously flying machine.  The parameters of the mission are entered into the software prior to launch, and once launched, the man on the ground monitors the flight for safety and proper execution but is not required to directly control the aircraft.  UAS has been around for decades, but this autonomy is what makes this generation of UAS particularly interesting and advanced.

Ultimately, most UAVs will simply be trucks capable of carrying a certain payload.  A series of plug and play sensors will be available to equip your UAV for whatever the mission of the day requires.  This includes video, RGB, and near-infrared cameras, multi spectral sensors, hyperspectral sensors, thermal sensors, lidar, and others.  The implications for vegetation analysis, terrain modeling, engineering, wildlife surveys, precision ag, and myriad environmental applications are vast and exciting.  Research on sensor integration and viability with UAS has been underway for some time.  Check out some interesting Australia-based research going on with various sensor integrations at the TerraLuma Project.

Near infrared orthophoto captured from a UAV.  Courtesy of Trimble Navigation.
Near infrared orthophoto captured from a UAV.

UAS at Elecdata

Here at Elecdata we have been keeping a close eye on the UAS industry as it has poured into the mapping and GIS world.  In March Elecdata, Trimble, and the Idaho Army National Guard teamed up in Boise, Idaho to demonstrate the Trimble UX5 solution for mapping and surveying.  The interest level was high, the participation excellent, and the outlook enthusiastic.  Data deliverables included high-resolution orhtophotos, topo lines, a .las point cloud of elevation points, digital surface models, and other derived products at an accuracy of approximately 3 cm.  More on the powerful and dynamic data deliverables in a future post!

Elecdata, Trimble, and the Idaho Army National Guard hosted a demonstration of the Trimble UX5 in Boise, ID on March 18.  Photos courtesy of Chase Fly and Tom Black.
Elecdata, Trimble, and the Idaho Army National Guard hosted a demonstration of the Trimble UX5 in Boise, ID on March 18. Photos courtesy of Chase Fly and Tom Black.
Screen shot of flight plan used for demo flight in Boise.  Courtesy of Trimble Navigation.
Screen shot of flight plan used for demo flight in Boise.
Sample image from data collected at demo.
Sample image from data collected at demo.

Keep an eye out for more blog posts and industry involvement from Elecdata on UAS!


Photos courtesy of Trimble Navigation.