Already Here

by Gavin Schrock, PLS

Fait acompli – “it is done”

You can hang a camera from a kite, or a balloon, or a radio-controlled aircraft, or a small private aircraft, or even a full-blown helicopter—this has been going on since the advent of cameras and these airborne platforms. Television and film production companies have been using small, radio-controlled helicopters, blimps, and airplanes for decades. Eyes have been in the sky for a very long time, and even in support of mapping, mining, agriculture, surveying (remember when aerial mapping was called “aerial surveying”?), public safety, and many other (what should be) non-controversial uses. But it is almost as if the broader public has suddenly “discovered” unmanned aerial systems (UAS). Good or bad, these are already here. And the goal of many involved is to realize the positive benefits while promoting responsible and legal uses.

What has changed is the availability and affordability of these systems; you can buy them at those tech boutiques in the mall, online, or even in a toy store. A long overdue national dialogue about the potential impacts on privacy has been welcomed by the UAS industry—the sooner the issues are examined and sensible rules are in place, the sooner the benefits of such systems can be fully realized. It is not as if the concerns or risks have suddenly materialized with the advent of UAS; it has always been illegal to peek into someone’s windows, whether a robot is used or not. Are binoculars illegal? No, but using them to breach privacy is. The Google buggies have already driven our streets; there is already decimeter-resolution aerial photo imagery online; real-estate agents are already using the little consumer camera-copters; and in recent days there have been press releases about the FAA giving the okay for two commercial unmanned systems for use by large energy companies (go figure). Perhaps that realization has just now caught up to the general public, and the UAS boom is an obvious and very visible reminder that there needs to be deeper conversations.

Can the privacy concerns of the general public be protected without prohibiting, say, a farmer from inspecting his crops with a UAS on his own property? Or preventing a department of transportation from cutting their corridor mapping costs in half? Or preventing mining operations from performing slope and volumetric analysis without having to put workers at risk by sending them into the pit to measure? About 1,000 companies involved in producing and developing UAS (in the U.S. alone) are already betting that the rules will be clarified, and very soon. The conversation has been turned into a wedge issue by some and a cottage industry by others (I saw a one-off magazine about “drones” at the grocery check-out stand the other day); the conversation is necessary, but the delays may also be widening the lead that the rest of the world has in UAS development.

The full magnitude of this boom (and particularly the lead that non-U.S. companies have in this field) hit me hard during a visit to the UAS company Schiebel, at their production facilities at an airfield near Vienna, Austria in June. In conjunction with the Riegl Lidar 2013 conference held in Vienna, a tour of Schiebel’s facility and demonstration flights were offered. The Schiebel S-100 (on the cover, photographed during the visit) is considered by many to be the top of the food chain in commercial UAS. It is nine-feet long, can fly for 6-10 hours (depending on payload), can carry up to a 200-pound payload, and has recently been fitted to carry a full airborne lidar system (in a partnership with Riegl). This level of sophistication is a harbinger of things to come; the engine is a Wankel rotary (chosen to reduce vibration), and these have been custom-developed and produced by Austro Engine, a partner at the same airfield that produces custom, high-efficiency, lightweight motors for several aerial mapping craft producers.

Like nearly all types of UAS, the best practice for the S-100 is to use pre-planned flight paths, with the operator taking control only in the event of unforeseen circumstances. The S-100 can operate as far as 200 km from the radio link (where operations are not limited to line-of-sight). The flight demonstration (by coincidence at a nearby Austrian Army reservation) demonstrated the speed, stability, low noise, and agility of such systems. But the punchline is that the S-100 has been available for nearly a decade.

What is the difference between something like the S-100 and the conventional manned craft utilized by already successful, helicopter-based aerial surveying firms around the world? Cost of operation, versatility, and crew safety. The same types of companies doing the large-cap projects presently with manned craft will be the same types doing them in the future with large UAS.  UAS such as these can operate at a tenth of the hourly cost of a manned helicopter and can fly into tighter and more dangerous spots. All that needs to happen now is for the rules to catch up with the tools. 

Further reading on the subject can be found in the publication Aerial Mapping that mailed with this issue of PSM; it has an excellent feature titled, “The Promise of UAS in the United States.” In addition, August 2013 saw the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) conference in Washington, D.C., and there is now a U.S. university offering UAS piloting courses. UAS are big biz, and that, if anything, will keep the FAA moving on rules development.

Where does that leave surveyors? The general view in Europe is that the practitioners of any mapping and positioning systems, regardless of the ever-evolving set of tools being used, are surveyors and that the qualifications to do such work (ironically specified more strictly in contract language than by regulating bodies) are the same fundamentals and principles key to all types of surveying. Here is the ball—want to join in the game? There are options to fit all size and manner of surveying firms and contracts: from the little camera-copters and planes, to integrated systems like the Gatewing, all the way up to the heavy craft like the S-100. Surveyors can (and are) involved in the use of these craft already, and there is room for more to join.

—Gavin 
 

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