UAS — Don’t Blink

This entry is part 12 of 13 in the series xyHt in print May 2016

The audible signature of drones is readily recognizable. With the flood of consumer drones, the distinctive whir of those little propellers fills our skies and thoughts. But there is another sound associated with drones and their commercial manifestation in the form of UAVs and UAS that might someday soon be cause for alarm: the “whoosh” of UAS opportunities flying right past our professions.

The FAA estimates that as many as 7,000,000 drones (of various types) will be purchased by 2020 in the U.S.—300,000 registered in one month alone, with at least 500,000 UAS bought for commercial purposes. The definition of commercial purposes might be broad, and there are no hard numbers on how many might actually be successful money-making ventures, but it is undeniable that a substantial number are.

The sheer scale of commercial interest is driving the FAA to adapt rules rapidly, and some mighty big players have the lobbying power to make things happen: for example, large energy interests, large telecoms, and delivery services. There will be a lot of UAS expertise out there completely outside of surveying, mapping, and construction. Are we ready to compete?

Can our professions afford to wait and see how this all plays out? Does the FAA prohibit us from using UAS for surveying, design, mapping, planning, monitoring, inspection, and other AEC market services? No, on both counts.

Forward-thinking firms have jumped ahead. An example is Albuquerque’s Volo Pervidi LLC, a multidiscipline firm that has taken all the right steps to obtain the pilot’s license, 333 exemption, COAs, and a large-rotor UAS (though under 50lbs) that packs cameras and a lidar scanner. This early adoption has resulted in folks lining up for surveying and mapping projects with this company, and they’re now the local go-to for real-estate, construction, and development work—also for film and television production clients.

Imagine in a few short years when title companies and developers might expect a slew of aerial-derived products (orthophotos, DEM, infrared, etc.) as standard along with a boundary survey. This will be their call, not ours. Cities implementing full 3D city models may contract monthly or quarterly flights for change detection and update with larger craft like the Silent Falcon (pictured on the cover).

There are two paths our professions could take: 1) try to legislate market share or 2) try to demonstrate the value of an expert, authoritative role in UAS services. The former might take a very long time and we may be up against large and well-funded end-user constituencies; the latter might take serious self-promotion for our professions.

We hope the UAS features in this month’s xyHt help in your decision-making process. Thought-leader John Perry summarizes considerations for adopting UAS into business models. Plus, we have stories on former UAS start-ups that have established solid markets, use of a UAS in a bold, scientific case study, and a newer “full stack” (end-to-end, direct-to-user) start-up with a unique equipment lease/cloud-processing model. We also drill into some design features: what makes one drone different from another.

The world of UAS got legit real fast … and will not wait for us.

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