The exploding interest in unmanned aerial vehicles and systems is a global paradigm shift that began with their heavy use in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan that is now poised to rapidly accelerate. The expansion to civilian use is coupled with technology and safety innovations, and upcoming more lenient FAA regulations in the United States. The annual Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) recently held its annual meeting in Las Vegas, with such interesting news reports as an FAA planned ‘realignment’ to deal with an estimated 30,000 drones flying above the U.S. by 2020, and a growing industry valuation of $12 billion within 10 years.
Aerial robotics is a white-hot topic, illustrated by the 7,000 attendees and 550 exhibitors in attendance at the AUVSI annual gathering. There’s interest in the geospatial communities to claim and include this technology, as it’s clearly a means of sensing and monitoring that ties in tightly with existing tools and systems. Yet, it’s already a significant industry of its own, and may just continue to be a splinter that forges a life of its own, with companies innovating around, and often repeating, the efforts of existing geospatial vendors.
Much of the integration issues revolve around the military/civilian divide where companies that have developed technologies for classified missions have significant issues translating those technologies into civilian application. Where military contractors thrive on highly engineered, and expensive deliverables at low volumes to meet niche demands, the civilian world needs high-volume and low-cost iterations that address universal problems.
Favorably, some of the recent advancements in the military UAV space have been to translate large systems into small low-cost sensing platforms for use on the ground by soldiers, making the platforms both rugged and easy to use, which translates directly toward commercial goals. The divide between military and civilian use is being breached by technology, but there’s still a disconnect between communities. There are certainly inroads being made, but it’s an often awkward transition with different vocabularies and objectives, although there’s a strong shared interest.
These small and autonomous aerial sensing platforms are a game changer in so many ways, given their low cost of operation, and increasingly robust sensing capacity. Innovation is taking place with smaller versions of traditional aerial sensors such as infrared, synthetic aperture radar, electro-optical cameras, and even lidar sensors. While many of the UAV platforms are designed for short-range and short-term use, there’s also a move toward systems that can have a larger and longer range by utilizing technologies such as solar power.
The potential for these low-cost platforms puts them in competition with traditional aerial imaging, although not yet much of a threat given issues of range and sensing capacity. Associations that are aligned with aerial photogrammetry are embracing the potential of UAVs, and are watching developments closely, yet there haven’t been any significant efforts to date, given regulations that favor traditional approaches. As this is quickly changing, it may prove difficult for these associations and vendors to pivot quickly to embrace the opportunities on the heels of organizations that have been engaged since their inception.
The use of drones for civilian operations include police surveillance, agricultural crop observing, monitoring forests and wildfires, inspecting electrical transmission and wind turbines, mapping urban areas, and monitoring construction activity. As these platforms proliferate, whole new application areas will arise.
The FAA will release a five-year road map to integrate drones into airspace by February of next year, with steps toward permitting by 2015. The next three years will be an exciting time in the evolution of these platforms, and for their inclusion as a significant sensing source into geospatial systems. An age of persistent aerial surveillance of small geographies with low-cost sensors will dramatically change what we know about our world. There are huge business opportunities that would benefit from greater alignment between traditional UAV groups and geospatial applications. Let’s forge the relationships now in order to ensure rapid rewards from these integrated technologies.
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