Incorporating Photogrammetry into a Surveying Practice

by Ken Scruggs

Over the last year I have heard many times on the 6:00 news how the economy is on the upswing and change for the better is just around the corner. Well … maybe this is true for a few on Wall Street, but I haven’t been seeing any trends or changes on Main Street. Our aerial mapping firm works in the majority of states so we are constantly communicating with other firms around the country, and all have been saying the same thing: The economy is down and nothing is changing.

I believe that, sometime in the not-so-distant future, we will come out of this economic downturn. We always do. However, the time for recovery will be measured not in months but in years. Hopefully it’ll be one or two years, but who can really predict this accurately?

I also believe that our economy and market will not look the same during and after recovery as it did when we entered it. With this in mind, one of our main jobs as managers or owners in our industry is to put some serious effort and brain power into figuring out what the future will look like and to prepare for it. To do nothing but tread water and wait until things get better puts you only one step closer to being a dinosaur faced with extinction.

While you are treading water, technology will still progress. Those who adopt new technologies will work more efficiently in either direct costs or time, or they will be able to provide services that others cannot.

Firms that are succeeding in today’s market apply one of several particular approaches or a combination of different approaches. Some firms are making their working area larger geographically; some are beginning to offer a broader range of services or products. Those broadening their offerings are doing so either by purchasing new equipment and expanding internally or by making alliances with firms that offer related products or services.
In essence, we are being forced to improve as we struggle to get a larger piece of a smaller pie.

Advances in Photogrammetry

In the past, photogrammetry was not as accurate as it is now, and I am sure some people were not pleased with the results. These accuracy problems may have been the result of technology limitations that no longer exist. Also, lest we forget, photogrammetry is a blend of science and art, and perhaps people who were dissatisfied in the past were working with a firm not so skilled in the arts.

Now, because of advances in cameras and computer technology, aerial photogrammetry is the major method for producing base maps and topographic maps. Today’s mapping cameras sport improvements that were aided by the advances in computer technology over the last couple of decades. The lenses in these cameras, whether film or digital, approach the limits of what is theoretically possible in lens design and construction.

Also, softcopy photogrammetry, also known as digital photogrammetry, is now mainstream for the industry. Technology advances in airborne GPS and IMU (inertial measuring unit) data collected during the flight continue to improve the efficiency and accuracy of aerial mapping methods.

Broaden your Offerings

Some firms may avoid using aerial photogrammetry in order to keep their own crews busy, even if conducting business this way is less efficient. Remember though that a surveying firm is also a business. As a business, you have a customer that you need to be efficient for, or your phone may not ring when this customer has another project. One of my photogrammetry customers commented that in his region those surveyors who were not using aerial photogrammetry were struggling.

If you think using aerial means less field work, consider that sometimes the opposite is true. When a firm incorporates aerial, they have an edge because of lower overall costs, and they can do a higher volume with higher margins.

Truthfully, aerial photogrammetry is not practical for small, two- to three-acre tracts. But it is ideal for larger areas that can absorb the setup costs. Aerial photogrammetry may be the only practical and/or cost-effective method to collect planimetric or topo data in an area difficult to traverse by foot or motorized vehicles.

Many success stories involve a blend of traditional ground surveying and aerial photogrammetry. Several surveyors start with a base map completed by aerial photogrammetry, and they augment this base map to meet precise accuracies needed in construction design, water and sewer utilities, and highway corridor work. One surveyor I know uses an aerial base map as a quality-control tool to check for blunders or missing data. He also likes to use aerial in an urban area for highway or utility work, as this minimizes having to deal with multiple property owners who may be unhappy with his crews on their property.

We all tailor projects to the customer’s requests and needs. With additional tools in our toolbox, you can be more flexible and make better use of opportunities.

The vast majority of all business is an interaction of personal relationships, so choose your alliances with care. Most people I work with, who have chosen this industry as their career and meet at regional and national conferences, are good people and a main reason I continue in this industry.
Ken Scruggs is founder and owner of Midwest Aerial Photography and has been active in aerial data imagery acquisition for planimetric mapping, topographic mapping, GIS, and remote sensing applications for 33 years.

» Back to our August 2010 Issue

Website design and hosting provided by 270net Technologies in Frederick, Maryland.