Drones and the evolution of aerial surveying

There will come a day, once the automation craze has fully settled in, where we will all be able to regale younger listeners with stories of the way we once did things. Stories about how we once steered our own cars and even occasionally parallel parked, how we used to wait two full days for Amazon Prime to deliver our packages, and how we used to sign into Facebook using a password.

For many people across many industries, one of the most head-shaking stories to be told will be about how we used to send entire aircrafts into the air in order to get measurements of the ground. Surveying is right in the middle of coming along way, baby, and what’s happening right now and about to happen in surveying technology will fortunately leave that cumbersome process in the past where it belongs.

What’s now

At long last, businesses and organizations across the globe are able to bid adieu to manned surveying flights using helicopters and other small aircraft. That’s goodbye and good riddance to the expense of owning or renting, storing, maintaining, fueling and flying these aircraft, to the risk of sending human pilots and surveyors into the air for low-flying survey flights, often in risky terrain, and to the delays associated with relying on flights for surveying data. While surveying flights were obviously invaluable for the data, measurements and maps they’ve produced over the decades, it’s hard to say they’ll be missed.

Going forward, these tasks will be left up to much smaller aerial vehicles, ones that don’t require humans on board and, in some cases, humans at all. Enter the drones, otherwise known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). UAV mapping and surveying are some of the most essential tasks being completed by industrial drones, and with the many benefits offered by these high (and low) flyers, it’s easy to see why they’re overhauling surveying as we know it.

Both standard industrial drones and automated drones are currently being put to work for aerial surveying. Both types of drones eliminate aircraft-related costs as well as eliminate the risk to human pilots and passengers, making them safer and more cost-effective. Automated drones, which can perform all of its operations with either no human intervention or minimal human intervention, take the benefits even further by eliminating the need for and cost of a drone pilot, and by eliminating the scheduling difficulties and delays associated with a pilot, enabling on-demand surveying. Automated drones also nix the chance of human error.

Currently, both standard and automated drones for surveying are typically equipped with photogrammetry sensors that capture and analyze thousands of aerial images to produce two-dimensional or three-dimensional models. Photogrammetry is a leading surveying technology, and the option that best meshes high-quality with cost-effectiveness. However, photogrammetry is not without its limitations, and with the way technology rapidly changes, it won’t be long before something better becomes the go-to.

What’s next

In the future of aerial surveying, the split between standard drones and automated drones will disappear as automated drones take over as industry-standard. They’re more efficient, cost-effective and precise, and with leading automated drones doing everything from changing their own batteries and sensors to housing themselves in their own bases, they just make sense for the wide range of industries looking to improve operations without spending more time and money.

The benefits of investing in an automated drone capable of equipping itself with a variety of sensors will become even more apparent as light detection and ranging technology, known as LiDAR, becomes the go-to technology for drone surveying. Compared to photogrammetry, LiDAR is widely thought of as the superior technology. Where photogrammetry struggles in low light, has difficulty recognizing narrow objects like power lines, and cannot image through tree canopy and vegetation, LiDAR has no such issues, using lasers to measure distances and create the most accurate three-dimensional models currently possible.

What currently holds LiDAR back from being the preferred technology is the cost of the technology as well as its weight. However, it won’t be long before attainably priced and sized UAV LiDAR sensors hit the market and industries from construction, transportation and telecommunication to mining and energy are benefiting from the increased accuracy provided by this technology. With an automated drone multitool capable of swapping its own sensors, companies will be able to put a next-gen LiDAR sensor to work as soon as it’s available.

No reason for nostalgia

As a society we tend to fall into a trap where we refer to the past as the good ol’ days. Sure, maybe music used to be better, and maybe there used to be real shows on television, and maybe a handwritten letter actually is a lost art that the world would’ve benefited from maintaining.

However, in many cases, the way things used to be is going to be laughable compared to what technology is allowing us to do and will allow us to do in the near future. Nobody is going to be waxing poetic about helicopter aerial surveying once automated drones equipped with LiDAR are sending out 300,000 laser pulses per second, you can count on that.

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