Of the many emerging applications for drones, no area has done more to embrace this technology in recent years than the surveying and mapping sector.
Geospatial applications are a critical function in the areas of engineering, construction, energy, utilities and renewables, to name only a few. The data capture component has traditionally been conducted by either manual methods - ground systems that are expensive to buy and unwieldy and time-consuming to operate effectively - or by satellite or aircraft, methods which are typically characterised by prohibitive operational cost.
But there is a new kid on the block, in the shape of drone technology and it is significantly and positively disrupting the data capture function in the survey arena. It is said that people are resistant to change and there was a time when surveyors imagined that the advent of drones would signal the end of their profession, a de-skilling of the human component in the workflow. Predictably enough, there was a reluctance on their part to fully embrace the concept until more was known. Now that initial misgivings have been overcome and drone technology has been shown to enhance, rather than replace the surveying function, drones have evolved to become an indispensable data capture tool in their inventory.
For the average ‘surveyor on the street’, this means access to a capability that was previously out of reach. Drones enable capture of large packets of data in complex environments to achieve an effective outcome in a quick and effective manner. They can be both a rotary and fixed wing configuration and each of these brings different capabilities. They reduce the health and safety risk of covering the survey area by foot with the added benefit that the drones are more environmentally friendly.
The advantage of using a drone over conventional aviation and satellites is that the data capture method is more responsive, less expensive to acquire and operate and typically gives greater levels of survey detail. Due to the relative distance from the surface, satellite imagery would be accurate to about a metre while a drone operating at a low altitude could achieve an image resolution of less than a centimetre in the right operational conditions. Many modern drone systems now have integrated GNSS/RTK as a key feature, further increasing accuracy without the need for deploying Ground Control Points (GCP). With the addition of multispectral cameras, the capabilities expand further into a range of other applications.
There are some limitations that survey drone users need to accept - the fact that the regulations are not evolving quickly enough to enable drones to be flown to their full capabilities. Currently, many drones have ranges of 3-4km+ but most regulations limit to Visual Line Of Sight (VLOS) distances, typically 500m radius from the launch point. These challenges are being addressed however and will be overcome in time. Then the true potential of drone technology will emerge in the survey sector.
Drones can be used in support of many different survey and mapping disciplines such as topographical surveys, volumetric analysis and environmental impact surveys and mapping. It is an established component of the survey sector and will continue to develop as innovative technologies are introduced. It is set to be an integral part of an exciting future for the survey sector.