The Top Five Things You Need to Know about Drones and GIS


The mere mention of “drones” conjures thoughts of bombs and missiles raining down on unsuspecting bad guys. However, most of today’s drones, more accurately described as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are or will be focused on generating data to solve peace-time applications.

UAVs range in size and cost from Northrop’s Global Hawk at $200M, with an endurance of 32 flying hours, to the $40 Powerup paper airplane driven by a small electric motor and controlled from a smartphone using Bluetooth. This article will focus on “prosumer” UAVs, smaller craft used for capturing remotely-sensed information. These aircraft are generally priced under $5,000 and in our opinion will be the game changers with respect to generating data for GIS applications.

1. The Technology

Over the last 15 years a confluence of technology has transformed radio controlled (RC) model airplanes, the kind hobbyists have been flying for decades, into unmanned aerial vehicles. Specifically, the ability to acquire GPS signals enables drones to fly autonomously. Prior to this capability, RC model airplane pilots needed to have visual contact with their plane. If they couldn’t see it in flight, they couldn’t control it. In most cases this fact limited the flight area to less than a couple hundred yards. Adding GPS receivers to drones enables pilots to control their UAV without seeing the entire flight path.

More recently, Wi-Fi technology has been added to the UAV mix in the form of First Person View (FPV). Drones with Wi-Fi cameras, such as GoPro and integrated cameras from DJI and Parrot, stream near real-time video of the flight to a smartphone or tablet. In other words, even though you may not have visual contact with the UAV, as it autonomously flies a waypoint route, you see what the drone “sees” as it flies. This capability allows pilots to alter the flight path, for further inspection, or build a new set of waypoints for the next flight.

2. Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Components

Multi-rotor copter UAVs typically have several components: an aircraft, a gimbal and a payload or instrument(s) attached to the gimbal. Without these components the aircraft is more a hobbyist model airplane than a drone.

The gimbal is a device attached between the drone and the payload the aircraft is carrying. It is a stabilizing platform that, for the most part, eliminates vibrations that cause what is called the “jello effect.” DJI’s Phantom 2 UAV with a Zenmuse H3-D3 gimbal and GoPro camera are pictured in Figure 1. Gimbal and camera are also shown separately.

Also pictured below are 3D Robotics’ fixed wing 3DR Aero drone and Lehmann Aviation’s LA100 with a GoPro camera. Fixed wing UAVs are more stable in flight and therefore they may not require gimbals.

Figure 1

It’s important to remember that drones make data collection affordable but the UAV payload does the actual process of gathering data. Depending on the application, payloads can be action, inferred, or thermal cameras, high precision barometers or multispectral, LiDAR, or hyperspectral sensors.
Much of the data gathered by UAVs needs to be processed. Ortho-correction, mosaicking and terrain extraction are just some of the data processing software tools available from various developers. Considering that software is an integral UAV component, many advocates feel the name should be changed from unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to unmanned aerial system (UAS).
3.The Applications
Drones will not create new GIS applications but will rapidly expand existing markets because they can access data less expensively than current methods. In other words, it will be far less costly to task a drone to gather inferred data from a forest flyover than, as in the past, to use a pilot and plane to collect the same data.
The following is a partial list of industries that will be disrupted by the use of aerial robots: remote sensing, weather monitoring, oil and gas exploration, transmission line monitoring, surveying, filmmaking, precision farming, terrain extraction, ortho-mosaicking, digital image analysis and 3D topographical imagery analysis.
The images of Figure 2 are from Skycatch’s website. They illustrate some of the applications that use UAV instruments as data gathering tools.

Figure 2a. Monitoring Real-time ortho maps

Figure 2b. Building 3D topo maps

Figure 2c. Measuring vegetation (NDVI)

Figure 2d. Terrain extraction

Figure 2e. Image captured by 3D Robotics 3DR Aero – Click to rotate image 360 degrees

4.The Market
Once regulations are in place, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) forecasts the UAS industry could raise the domestic economy by at least $13.6B and, within the next three years, create 70,000 new jobs. The AUVSI further estimates the economic benefit could be more than $82B by 2025.
According to a May 11, 2014 Wall Street Journal article 3D Robotics sells about 2,000 autopilots per month to drone manufactures or hobbyists and, according to Chris Anderson of 3D Robotics, DJI sells three times that amount.
In a related Wall Street Journal article dated July 8, 2014, Estes-Cox Corporation sold 500,000 remote controlled nanodrones. They are 1.8 inches square and sell for $40.
Funded UAV Companies
The following is a partial list of U.S. companies that have received venture funding (Crunchbase source):
  • Airware – $40.4 M
  • 3D Robotics – $35M
  • Skycatch – $19.7M
  • Crescent Unmanned Systems $250,000
The following is a partial list of U.S. companies that have received crowd-funding (Kickstarted source): 
  • Flexbot -$500,000 with 4,670 funders
  • Airdroids – $929,212 in pledged money
  • PowerUp – $1.23M
5.The Barriers to Success
The biggest immediate problem the U.S. UAV industry has is government regulation, or perhaps more accurately stated “lack of regulation.” Drone flights in Canada, Australia, Japan and many European countries are already regulated. This means unmanned aircraft organizations in these countries know where, what and when they can fly.
In the United States, the FAA controls the National Airspace System (NAS). It has long exempted noncommercial flights of unmanned model airplanes from rules that govern private and commercial aircraft. Although UAVs are also unmanned, the FAA wants more control over commercial flights of these vehicles. In the recent past it has sent warnings, threatened lawsuits and, in at least one case, attempted to levy a $10,000 fine against a commercial drone pilot.
The Wall Street Journal article of July 21, 2014 reported:  “Despite the FAA’s threats, more than 1,000 farmers attended a recent trade show in Decatur, IL, called the Precision Aerial Ag Show. A report by the Midwest Center for Investigative Journalism found that the value of using drones to manage crops – identifying diseases and pests, for example – outweighs the legal risks. But it also reported that farmers were told that many of the most advanced drones are not available in the U.S. because of the risk of FAA prosecution against manufacturers.”
Some regulations are supposed to be in place by the end of this year; the remaining framework will be added in 2015. Until these regulations become law, the U.S. UAV industry is in somewhat of a holding pattern.
Aside from the regulatory concerns, there are technical challenges. Multi-copter drones have limited range; most can fly no more than 25 to 30 minutes. Fixed wing aircraft have a longer range but they require a catapult or some type of runway.
Another confounding issue is infrastructure. Drones can gather data autonomously but most UAVs still require a pilot to oversee the flight and facilitate landings and takeoffs. This is especially true for fixed wing drones. In other words, even after the regulations are in place and the range problems are mitigated, there won’t be enough qualified pilots to provide the needed services.
Bonus Section: Autonomous Flight
If gathering data via UAV flights is going to change from the expensive and skilled process it is now, to a procedure that new users can easily adopt, it must be simple to use. As an example, precision farming won’t be accepted by farmers in mass if they need to become expert pilots, have an in-depth knowledge of complex aerial digital imagery, normalized differential vegetation index (NDVI) software or have to rely on third-party crop consultants. Autonomous flight solves most of these issues because it automates the process.
Figures 3a and 3b, provided by Lehmann Aviation, illustrate how a UAV flight path and data collection points can be set by simply clicking the route on a Web-rendered map. Once the course is complete, data can be automatically acquired in regular intervals. Principal responsibilities of the operator are only to change batteries and download the data. In other words, the operator does not need to be a skilled pilot.

Figure 3a. Flight path – autonomous UAV

Figure 3b. Example of UAV flight path and data collections points


For the most part, UAVs discussed in this article are not going to develop new markets but the technology is disruptive because it will dramatically enlarge existing markets. Inexpensive drones, or more specifically the instruments they carry, are data engines that will collect data, consume data, or collect and consume data. Once the FAA regulations are in place and autonomous flights are proven reliable we will see a dramatic increase in data collected and used for GIS applications.

Not only will this disruption affect the existing GIS data collection process, it will also roll through collateral industries. Vendors of the expensive cameras/sensors and image processing software products will need to adapt to lower prices or witness new competitors enter the market.


UAV Enthusiasts: Drone Photography Is Not A Crime

Drone Lawsuit

For several drone photography enthusiasts, their own footage has been their best defense against spurious charges.

David Beesmer was arrested by a New York state trooper on Tuesday and charged with a felony — unlawful surveillance in the second degree — for recording aerial video footage of the Mid Hudson Medical Group building in Ulster, New York, which just opened last Monday.

Beesmer was in the area because he had taken his mother to a doctor’s appointment at the hospital. He posted on Facebook that he wanted to fly his aerial drone in the area because he was “so very proud of this facility and that someone has done something positive with the property that has been abandoned for many years.”

But since Beesmer was reportedly flying his $1,300 drone between 10 and 15 feet from the windows of examination rooms at the medical facility — close enough for patients and medical staff to notice it — his use of the equipment became an issue.


FAA screens ideas about allowing drones for movies


WASHINGTON – The Federal Aviation Administration received scores of comments about allowing moviemaking companies to fly drones, and the bulk urged safe rules to avoid midair collisions with passenger planes.

Peter Newfield, a technician and location manager for film and video from Soquel, Calif., said drones would be safer than occupied helicopters while flying with less noise, smaller crews and less fire danger while filming, for example around Monterey Bay.

“It is my recommendation to license the professional radio-controlled aircraft companies that are able to pass FAA guidelines,” Newfield said.

Jerry Gardner of Fort Smith, Ark., said the FAA should make some initial rules, such as setting height, speed and weight limits for drones, and “get this show on the road.”

But Nick McMahon, a commercial helicopter pilot with experience in film and television, said a remote pilot should hold a commercial pilot’s license to ensure they are following FAA regulations, which would be prohibitive for many operators.

“So far, it’s clear that no commercial drone operators are complying with any laws,” McMahon said.

Wednesday was the final day for comments. The FAA hasn’t said how fast it will make a decision, but industry lawyers expect an answer within months.

The moviemaking exception is being considered as the FAA develops comprehensive rules for all drones under a congressional deadline of September 2015.

In setting up six experimental ranges to test how drones fly, the FAA focused on safety issues such as avoiding collisions between drones and planes, and ensuring they land safely if they lose connection to their remote pilots.

Commercial drones attract attention because the industry is expected to grow significantly once rules are adopted. The Aerospace Industries Association said the moviemaking proposal is focused on safe operations with licensed airmen at the controls.

In contrast to the much more prolific and emotional outpouring over cellular service aboard passenger planes, the 71 drone submissions tended to offer detailed comments about how FAA could craft rules – or the dangers that drones represent.

For example, several people suggested specific altitude limits for drones such as 250 to 1,000 feet off the ground. While the moviemakers proposed a 400-foot ceiling, McMahon said he routinely flies lower than that and would be endangered.

Richard Mock, a search-and-rescue pilot, voiced concern about seeing and avoiding drones below 1,000 feet.

“It is difficult enough to see and thus avoid larger aircraft,” Mock said. “When you start mixing very small aircraft into the system it will be virtually impossible to see tiny aircraft during daylight hours.”

Several people suggested that drones broadcast signals so that occupied planes would be aware of where they are flying, but that could be a hurdle for many drones that don’t carry such equipment.

“‘See and avoid’ has been for decades the primary rule in safe operation of flights,” Javier Abalo said. “We need to make sure that ‘see and avoid’ is the No. 1 priority for” drone operators.

But several people were deeply skeptical of allowing drones in the same airspace with passenger planes. While the FAA considered the moviemaker proposal, the National Park Service banned drones June 20 above its properties because of concerns about disturbing park visitors or wildlife.

“Just say ‘no,'” Jeffrey Aryan of Corona, Calif., told the FAA. “There is just too much room for abuse from all sides.”

The seven applicants are independent aerial cinematography companies that sought exemptions with the help of the Motion Picture Association of America.

The companies are: Aerial MOB, Asraeus, Flying-Cam, HeliVideo Productions, Pictorvision, Snaproll Media and Vortex.


Unmanned systems a ‘game changer’ for Dayton photographer


Andy Snow has always liked new technology. His first copy of Photoshop came on a 3 1/2-inch floppy disk long before it was refined to today’s use.

From his downtown apartment, Snow’s photography business has captured images from around Dayton for over 30 years. And now Snow, who focuses on business photography, says the unmanned aerial system business is going to transform the photography world in a way few other technologies have.

“This is an amazing convergence of technology,” Snow said. “The 14 megapixel camera, the lithium-ion battery, and the constant updates to the firmware.”