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Drones/RPAS/UAS – Surveying’s new fact or another passing fad? (Pt 2)

This is part-2 of an article originally published in Position magazine.

To read part-1, please click here.

Australia’s Hovermap is developing autonomous RPAS for surveying and mapping.

Emerging advancements in unmanned technology are set to enable Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS or drones) to become more economical, safe and reliable than we currently regard them. In turn, new surveying applications will emerge accompanied with a growing list of benefits to be realised.

Among other benefits, truly autonomous systems will reduce the need for human input; modernised Earth-fixed datums and smart processing algorithms will enable more people to achieve accurate and reliable results; improved battery technology will keep RPAS flying longer; the growing approvals of Beyond Visual Line Of Sight (BVLOS) operations will make large surveys more common; and the establishment of a UTM (air traffic management systems for drones) will reduce safety concerns.

While it might take quite some time for these benefits to come to the fore, they will only increase adoption of these technologies.

AUAV launch a fixed wing a RPAS at Bass Point Quarry. Source AUAV.com.au

Gavin Docherty, Position Partners RPAS Product Manager, believes as advancements such as these take hold, more conventional survey tasks will be able to be done with RPAS.

“Survey tools have traditionally been classified into the following general classes: precision, accuracy and data logging capabilities,” he explained. “It is very clear that the three dimensional data logging capabilities are far more comprehensive than traditional surveying methods and the precision and accuracy is within comparable limits.”

For Docherty, what stands in the way for many companies is deciding whether RPAS is a viable option for surveying operations in terms of safety, staffing requirements, training and ease of use.

“At this time there is a very distinct divide between companies that can’t see how they can compete without an RPAS and other companies that can’t see how to seamlessly incorporate an RPAS into their existing organisations,” he said.

Dr Craig Roberts, a senior lecturer from the University of New South Wales, sees that in the coming years allied professionals may gain some expertise for basic UAS tasks that will improve workflows, such as conducting mine volume surveys with intuitive processing software.

However for jobs requiring higher quality he believes “surveyors will still be needed to ensure the quality of georeferencing.”

Building interiors and exteriors acquired using Hovermap’s SLAM-based LiDAR mapping UAV platform.

Consensus: it’s ‘tool’ time

Returning to the original question: Will RPAS forever change surveying as we know it or are they another passing fad? It turns out it’s a bit of both.

Interestingly, the question gets many experts talking about RPAS as a ‘tool’.

Craig Roberts, for example, sums it up thus, “UAVs will be just another tool.”

So too does Jan Gasparic, the enterprise marketing manager for drone powerhouse DJI, see it that way: “Ultimately drones are another tool in the surveyor’s arsenal, albeit one that is improving in leaps and bounds.”

Similarly, Francois Gervaix of SenseFly expresses a firm belief that RPAS will follow the path of total stations and GNSS: “Drones are not a fad. But neither are they going to replace every surveying instrument being used today. We firmly believe that drones will cement their place in the toolkit of every professional surveyor in the coming years, much as total stations and GNSS did before them.”

AUAV’s Andrew Chapman puts it down to how they are used: “Like any tool, drones can be applied appropriately with great results, or inappropriately. They are certainly not a complete replacement for traditional survey techniques, though when the survey task at hand is a good fit for their capabilities, the benefits are simply overwhelming.”

Max Eichorn from Aerial Acquisitions describes a false economy for their hype, but concedes they do have their place in surveying: “I believe the limitations, both technical and legal, make them a false economy, except for as a useful tool for some survey operations.”

Although he doesn’t describe RPAS as a tool, Gavin Docherty of Position Partners believes RPAS is here to stay: “The fact remains, as long as RPAS operators are producing high quality, accurate data sets in a fraction of the time as traditional methods, RPAS will be an option that remains on the table for a long time to come.”

As does Bentley Systems’ John Taylor: “If UAVs can deliver both accuracy and efficiency at a price that effectively competes in the market, then naturally it will become the dominant capability.”

Anton Van Wyk from Spatial Technologies Pty Ltd, however, believes we need to focus on the results rather than the methods: “We are managing the fad and the fact until we reach the plateau of the Hype Cycle and we can get on with business at hand—collecting data using technology responsibly.”

A digital elevation model of a quarry created by Australian UAV. Source: auav.com.au

Here to stay

While it may be impossible to come to any sort of consensus, it’s reasonable to say that RPAS is here to stay as a surveying tool, but so are the rest of a surveyor’s tools. If we are ever to realise wider community benefit and greater productivity in the verticals that might benefit from RPAS surveys it might be worth our while to make the limitations of these systems more well known, as well as the benefits the alternatives will continue to offer.

After all, it’s the implementation of methodologies that will ultimately define a survey’s true worth, not the tool.

Missed part-1?

This is second instalment of a 2-part article originally published in Position magazine.

To read part-1, please click here.

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