Conference Recap: AUVSI North American Unmanned Systems
Professional Surveyor Magazine - October 2010
Jeff Salmon, Editor
Geospatial Industry Prepares for Civilian UAV Applications
Anyone who has paid attention to events in Iraq and Afghanistan has seen the ever-increasing use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) by the military for surveillance and direct action against insurgent forces there. The use of UAVs has grown exponentially—more than 7,000 of these vehicles have been used in these two conflicts—as have the industries that design, develop, and support them.
The stage is set for these high-tech wonder vehicles to take on a wide range of civilian tasks; aerial mapping and surveying seem like a natural extension of their current missions. One major roadblock stands in the way. As of today, with exceptions for Homeland Security and some law enforcement applications, UAVs (also known as unmanned aerial systems or UAS) are not allowed in U.S. National Air Space (NAS).
The good news is that the Federal Aviation Administration
is working with the industry to allow the expanded use of UAVs. A high-ranking FAA official proposes that small UAVs could enter the NAS in 2013, and larger craft could enter perhaps as early as 2018.
Outside the United States, UAVs are already being put to good use in civilian applications such as pipeline monitoring. Environmental regulations require rigorous monitoring of oil and gas pipelines, and the industry is challenged to meet these regulations. Aeronautics Defense Systems
, an Israeli defense company that supplies UAVs, has been awarded contracts to monitor pipelines in Angola and Nigeria.
In the initial stages of development, oil, gas, and mineral exploration is another application that shows great promise. As the regulatory environment improves we can expect an explosion of civilian use of this technology. Applications such as aerial mapping, environmental monitoring, and meteorology are but a few of the many tasks that civilian UAVs could address.
Pros and Cons of UAV in Mapping Applications
In August in Denver I attended the convention of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International
(AUVSI). One workshop I attended was on “Use of unmanned air vehicles in oil, gas, and mineral exploration activities” by Dr. Joseph Barnard. His presentation spoke to the many technical, logistical, and political issues that face the UAV industry as it tries to enter the civilian market. The following points are adapted from his presentation and represent his views of some of the relative advantvages and disadvantages of the UAV in oil, gas, and mineral exploration and pipeline monitoring. While this information is slanted to these applications, the geospatial community will be facing these issues as it adapts UAV technology to a wider range of civilian applications.
Advantages of UAV
• Unmanned aircraft cost less to operate per line km, because:
- a UAV operator can manage several UA at the same time, and
- UAVs use less than 20 percent of the fuel used by a manned aircraft.
• Small unmanned aircraft are more environmentally friendly because they:
- require fewer materials to build and are easier to dispose of,
- use less fuel and create less pollution per km traveled, and
- make less noise in flight.
• Unmanned aircraft can routinely fly missions covering the same area, day after day, night after night, to perform measurements for use in change detection and data averaging.
Disadvantages of UAV
• Unmanned aircraft are not (yet) permitted to fly in commercial (“un-segregated”) air space.
• They do not have a protected aeronautical frequency band.
• They’re not sufficiently reliable. Almost all present-day unmanned aircraft are single-engine, experimental aircraft that do not have air-worthiness certificates.
• They have not yet clocked up sufficient flight hours to provide data for a convincing safety case, without which the national aviation authorities, such as the FAA, the CAA, etc. will not issue a Certificate of Authorization to fly even in restricted air space.
• In the absence of sufficient flight hours and a legally sound safety case, the insurance costs are astronomical and blow any business case out of the water. Insurance costs are inversely related to flight hours, and one typically needs $10 million of insurance coverage.
• They do not yet have a “detect and avoid” system to enable them to detect and avoid other airborne objects, such as the farmer flying a Cessna in the Canadian outback.
• Government security services need to be sure the unmanned aircraft cannot fall into the hands of, or be used by, or be taken over in flight by, criminals or terrorists.
Depending on the UAV platform, a wide range of geospatial and geophysical sensing and imaging technology can be mounted onto these vehicles. These include, but are not limited to:
• GPS and inertial navigation systems (INS)
• High-resolution digital cameras
• Infrared and thermal imaging cameras
• Hyper-spectral imaging systems
• Cesium or potassium magnetometers for magnetic mapping
• Quantum cascade lasers for ethane detection
• Miniature synthetic-aperture radar (SAR)
Geospatial Tech Industry
While I was talking with Trimble
and other geospatial tech providers at the AUVSI, it became evident that they are watching this market space with interest. Trimble was on hand to promote, among other products, their Digital Sensor System and DSS Rapid Ortho comprehensive solutions for producing high-accuracy, high-resolution color and CIR digital orthophotos and orthomosaics.
The DSS Rapid Ortho system is geared for fast turnaround of imagery for emergency response, defense applications, and high-productivity commercial mapping. These products, along with their GPS and GPS/INS systems, can be adapted for UAV applications.
, a Finnish-based provider of digital imaging and image-processing systems, was on hand to tout their EnsoMOSAIC UAV software. This ortho-rectifying imaging package is notable in that it is designed to process small-format camera imagery into both two- and three-dimensional ortho-rectified mosaics. This makes it particularly well suited for small UAV applications.
In the lidar arena, Velodyne
exhibited their new HDL-32E Lidar Sensor, with a scanning rate of 800,000 distance points per second. At less than three pounds and smaller than 6” by 3.5”, this lidar scanner is ideal for UAV applications.
Although it will be a few years before we see any significant use of civilian UAVs in the United States, this technology shows great potential for the surveying and geospatial technology industry. Once the regulatory and technological issues have been sufficiently addressed, it could well revolutionize aerial mapping by bringing costs down while improving productivity and performance.
About the Author
Jeff Salmon, EditorJeff Salmon is the new editor for Professional Surveyor Magazine. For nearly 15 years he has been involved with the geospatial and surveying industries. He has worked as an instrument operator, a manager for a surveying firm, a land-use project manager and end-user of land surveying services, and a writer and editor on geospatial subjects. He started in 2005 as the Business Angle columnist, then served as the web editor and then editor for our popular Pangaea newsletter, which he still produces.
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