Many surveyors and mappers have long recognized the potential of drone technology in their work. Whether conducting operations for companies in sectors like mining, construction, energy, and agriculture, surveying and mapping professionals have found ways to reduce costs, increase safety, and increase accuracy by integrating unmanned systems.
The power and potential of UAV technology in surveying and mapping is highlighted in a recent article in American Surveyor. The article reports that traditional surveying methods, including the use of scaffolding, ropes and mobile aerial work platforms, are “expensive, time-consuming and very labor intensive”. The article also states: “The main disadvantage is that traditional methods cannot ensure health and safety in the workplace.”
The use of drones, on the other hand, keeps personnel away from potentially dangerous environments, such as “rocky terrain, swamps, marshes, high altitudes, and others.” Ultimately, the article states: “Drone surveying is better than traditional methods in every respect. It’s less hassle, less expensive, more accurate and safer.”
Despite all the benefits of UAV technology, not every mapping and surveying operation has yet fully embraced drones. Industry experts point to creating data workflows, customer expectations, training and staffing, and regulations as some of the issues preventing some surveyors and cartographers from using the technology
Below are six obstacles to the adoption of drones in surveying and mapping—and what can be done to overcome those challenges.
1. Creating drone data workflows
How do we create drone and data collection operations tailored to specific surveying and mapping projects? What factors need to be considered to ensure accuracy and ease of use?
Josh Adams of Adams Surveying Company, LLC, a company that provides surveying, mapping, and construction services across Texas, explained that one of the problems with creating workflows is that many drone professionals simply don’t have the knowledge to develop effective data workflows.
“It’s difficult to create a workflow if you don’t understand what is required by the end user, be it an engineer, a site manager, FEMA, a title company, etc.,” he explained. “The same goes the other way around – it’s difficult to design a workflow from a surveying standpoint when many surveyors are unaware of the capabilities of drone technology.”
Adams said that surveyors and mappers “need the collaboration of pilots to open their eyes to a new generation of tools and devices that integrate into their existing workflows.”
Ultimately, Adams believes that “workflows should be developed from the survey side and pure-play drone pilots should work alongside surveyors, rather than trying to approach the industry as individuals.”
To aid in this process, experts like Adams say that alongside working with clients, proper training is essential.
During a Commercial UAV News 2022 webinar on surveying and mapping, Joe Hutton, director of inertial technology, land and air vehicles at Applanix Corporation, spoke about the importance of creating a “complete surveying solution.” He explained how his company works closely with its customers to create workflows that analyze data captured by cameras and lidar to “deliver what the end user needs.” Meeting customer expectations with the right technology is key to creating a useful drone data workflow.
2. Determination of the required accuracy
Some surveyors, cartographers and clients try to collect more data than they really need. But what happens when we try to collect more data than necessary? And do we need an accuracy of 2 mm for each job?
Josh Adams said, “Different jobs require different levels of accuracy.” He explained that the level of accuracy required to collect data on a large construction project, like building an apartment complex, “is very complex for many drone-based operations and is difficult”. However, he said, “a survey of raw land is easier to create and obtain with basic skills and knowledge.”
“Whether we’re mapping undeveloped land or dense urban areas with drones, it requires a deep understanding of data extraction software to be proficient,” Adams said. “Most raw land locations can be detailed with basic software knowledge; However, you still need to understand how the algorithms and tools work to find the errors and edit them manually if needed.”
The other side of accuracy, Adams continued, is understanding coordinate systems. “Is the location in a published system or in a local coordinate system? Do we know which map projection to use? How can we correct and adjust the differences? These are extremely powerful points when dealing with engineering design that can be very costly if the wrong data is presented,” he said.
The need to conduct a full analysis of the project and match the required level of accuracy to the parameters of the job can save time and money, and ensure clients receive the data they need. “Finding the right tool for each job is very important,” Adams said.
3. Acquisition of the required accuracy
Once you have determined the level of accuracy required, the challenge now is to collect that accurate data. Unfortunately, “detection accuracy” is a challenge for many who want to use drones for surveying and mapping. For many, the solution boils down to a compromise between simplicity and accuracy.
In an interview with Commercial UAV News, Aerotas founder Logan Campbell explained that some automated, cloud-based solutions “lack the accuracy and customization that comes with more manual processing. A lot of issues or errors that would arise with manual processing could slip through the cracks in cloud-based solutions, so it’s important to be very careful.”
Campbell explained that “just a few errors in accuracy, processing, or revisiting a project site will nullify all of those time savings, make you look bad in front of a client, and cost you money. A single error in final accuracy can delay a project by a full day or more.”
He said that “Having the know-how to prevent mistakes before they happen and spotting mistakes before they happen is the best way to save money. Therefore, professional processing is the best choice for many companies.”
Everyone involved with the drone industry, including surveyors and cartographers, faces the constant challenges of complying with local, state, and federal regulations and adapting to changes in the regulatory environment. Fortunately, many believe that the regulatory environment is improving and the process of obtaining exemptions and approvals for new drone-based operations is becoming easier and easier.
During the survey and mapping webinar, Colin Romberger, Solutions Engineering Manager at Skydio, explained how his company helps customers obtain BVLOS exemptions. Going through the approval process repeatedly and demonstrating repeatedly that operations can be safely flown “has given the FAA a lot of confidence in their company,” Romberger said.
“We’re seeing quick turnaround times” for waiver requests, he reported. “In general, I think things are moving in the right direction.”
However, for surveyors and cartographers in Europe, many report that the regulatory environment is still challenging. In the same webinar, Philipp Amon, Manager of ULS Business Division at REIGL, explained that “there is a national process in every country” to get approval for longer, higher value drone missions.
“There’s quite a lot of paperwork to get to next-tier flights,” he said. “This process is not yet automated and takes a lot of time. I hope that this will improve in the years to come.”
5. Training and Personnel
To get the most out of drones, companies need to train their employees extensively in hardware, data acquisition systems, and analytics software. But training can be challenging, as experienced surveying and mapping professionals find they may be reluctant to learn new ways of doing their job.
During the survey and mapping webinar, Skydio’s Romberger said that “education is a big part of getting people to be competent and be able to create valuable products that move the needle and really value their value.” will show.” Romberger explained that his company, like many others, has developed an easy-to-use platform for running its products, “because we know that learning new systems can be difficult, and learning new systems that… designed for surveying, is complex and for mapping purposes.”
In order to get the most out of drone-based surveying and mapping operations, it is imperative to create user-friendly systems and to properly train personnel in these programs. Many UAV experts believe that the best way to learn how to use drones in industry is to first be an experienced surveyor or cartographer and then learn how to use drone systems on the job.
Fortunately, many surveyors and cartographers are enthusiastic about learning new systems to improve the efficiency, accuracy, and safety of their operations. At the same Commercial UAV News webinar, Joe Hutton, director of inertial technology, land-based and airborne products at Applanix Corporation, said he saw “a real eagerness” among surveyors and mappers to learn about drone technology.
“I think people realize that you only get out what you put in,” he said.
6. Dealing with expectations
While many surveying and mapping professionals have worked with clients who had unreasonable expectations of what drones could do, some contend that expectations can be managed through education and collaboration.
During the webinar, Applanix’s Joe Hutton said, “I think there’s an educational process about what this technology can bring. We’re still not past the stage where this becomes second nature.”
Building on that statement, Romberger explained that Skydio “spends a lot of time collaborating with our customers” and “we realize that they are seeing the technology for the first time and realizing that there are many other things we can do.” Rather than dampening expectations, he said they often discover “new and emerging uses.”
Keep an eye out for new installments in our 6 Barriers to Drone Adoption series in the coming weeks.