State of the Drone

Winding down the year is a good time to reflect on the changes, applications, and direction of the small Unmanned Aerial Systems in the mapping industry. This has been another year of rapid and dramatic changes in the drone world. Waivers and authorizations are still big topics. Drone for delivery is creeping into the picture with examples in several niches, like medicine on hospital campuses. I want to focus my attention here to the applications and changes we see in the mapping industries.

Processing speed and functionality gains

One of the original advantages drones offered over traditional approaches in mapping was time savings. Sites could be captured and data analyzed much more quickly, and safely. Like any growth industry, sUAS is still pushing the edges for improvements. Large data sets take a long time to process. To maintain the time-saving advantage, developers are focusing on software improvements to reduce processing time. Some software services are even cooperating with drone manufacturers to optimize mission planning during the capture stage to improve processing times.

Another change taking place on the software side is extending the data capture capabilities further into the reality capture workflow. Well developed TIN, topography, and terrain applications have been around for quite a while. We are now seeing enhancements in those, as well as new entrants that are providing feature extraction capabilities from the 3D point cloud, the photogrammetry, or both. Application developers are recognizing the value of providing data derived from the processing. Creating faster, more accurate methods to vectorize hard, physical features for uses in building information management, facility management, and as-built drawings, in general, is getting attention. Being able to quickly and accurately derive features like sidewalks, curbs, lamp posts, vegetation, power poles, and even suspended power lines from point clouds is a new development in sUAS.

Aircraft and Sensors

Fixed-wing drones typically have longer flight times than the multi-rotor drone. This makes larger sites more feasible. Fixed wings with vertical takeoff and landing capabilities are surging and major manufacturers are making more aggressive moves to enter the US market. New models by multiple manufacturers are using this takeoff and landing configuration. This trend will continue. 

Prices for LiDAR sensors and systems are falling quickly. Excellent systems are now available for about $100,000. Three years ago that was more like $200,000 to $250,000. This is going to play into the points made above about processing speed and feature extraction. LiDAR processes in a fraction of the time it takes to process photogrammetric outputs. Furthermore, LiDAR systems are now combined with standard RGB sensors. That means one can still process an ortho from the same flight. However, the ground data is available much more quickly from the LiDAR.

Finally, look for more automation – automation that better connects more of the sUAS workflow. Applications or systems that combine the mission definition, planning, flying, and processing are areas where work is already being done and more will continue.

The state of the drone in mapping has moved from skepticism to adoption and is still moving ahead quickly.

Jeff Lawrence, UAV Business development

sUAS Business Development / sUAS Pilot