Business Leader: Trimble’s Rob Miller Talks UAS

This entry is part 5 of 9 in the series December 2013

Dec_2013_24Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) have hit the mainstream, or at the very least they’re poised to be ready for take-off when the FAA rules for commercial use are ready (possibly in 2015). For an insight from a supporting industry we interviewed Rob Miller, the product portfolio manager for Unmanned Systems at Trimble.

PSM: Do you feel that UAS will have a substantial impact in aerial mapping, and if so, in what way?

RM: While UAS have emerged as a tool for geospatial professionals only over the last few years, aerial photogrammetry has been utilized for surveying and mapmaking since the mid-1800s. While traditional photogrammetry with manned aircraft is typically reserved for large projects, UAS aerial imaging brings the benefits of aerial photographs and measurements to more companies and many other projects. 

PSM: Do UAS represent just another way to do aerial mapping, or are there specific applications where they might provide greater utility?

RM: When photogrammetry started, it was used for only a few purposes, and the technology was antiquated by today’s standards—hot-air balloons and birds. But, as with most things, improvements in technology breed new benefits and therefore new applications. Aerial photogrammetry is no longer reserved for geospatial professionals; agronomists, search and rescue personnel, disaster and emergency managers, journalists, and commercial and amateur photographers can be found using unmanned aircraft. 

Of the variety of applications and markets that will utilize the technology, search and rescue, disaster and emergency management, and geospatial will benefit greatly from the safety aspects of using unmanned aircraft. Being able to remotely measure and inspect an area or structure reduces the potential harm to the individuals typically performing this work. The fact that a surveyor at an open-pit mine is no longer required to traverse unfavorable terrain and be continuously aware of heavy equipment is obviously a huge benefit.

PSM: Will wider adoption of UAS change the types of deliverables for aerial mapping?

RM: In the early days of photogrammetry, it was used simply to get a “birds-eye view” to generate maps. But just as the technology has evolved, so have the uses for aerial photography and the deliverables that can be produced. The geo-referenced orthomosaic images used to create 2D maps and 3D surface models used to generate contours of the terrain and calculate volumes of earthwork are examples of the most common deliverables derived from photogrammetry. Near-infrared cameras and multi-spectral sensors are finding a place onboard UAS and are used to helping determine the health of vegetation in agriculture and forestry applications. Many additional sensors, including thermal imaging and lidar, are being integrated into aircraft and will offer opportunities for new applications for UAS.

While the data obtained from unmanned aircraft has a multitude of applications, aerial data collection is not always the best method to measure all projects. Due to limitations of the technology, achievable accuracy, environment, or regulations, there will always be a place for other measurement technologies—often terrestrial-based. Geospatial professionals and others benefit from software applications and workflows that allow the aggregation of data from multiple technologies. The use of fixed-wing aircraft with cameras for terrain modeling and land-use classification and multi-rotor aircraft for inspection and modeling of vertical structures, coupled with terrestrial laser scanning and other technologies, will provide a comprehensive 3D view from all perspectives, including indoors.

PSM: Do you feel the process for developing the rules for commercial use of UAS is proceeding on the right track?

RM: Throughout the world, aviation authorities are responsible for ensuring “safe skies”; the regulations imposed vary based on the local socio-economic situation and the congestion of the airspace. The adoption of UAS for geospatial and other applications will depend on how easy it is for companies/individuals to fly legally. While the regulations currently in place limit legal UAS operation, aviation authorities do understand the large economic and productivity gains that can be recognized.
The broad range of industries and applications that can benefit from unmanned aircraft systems, such as agriculture, urban planning, disaster analysis, and public safety, will result in diversity in the airspace: fixed-wing vs. multi-rotor aircraft, different flight altitudes, autopilot vs. remote-piloted, still vs. video cameras vs. numerous other measurement sensors. As a result of all this, we may see different regulations based on application, type of aircraft, on-board sensors or flight altitude.

PSM: Are you optimistic about what the future holds for UAS?

RM: Unmanned aircraft systems will likely follow the path of many other technologies that surround us in our daily lives. As more companies get involved in the industry, new applications are developed, and science progresses, we will see aircraft become smaller and more lightweight, workflows will become simpler and faster, and the onboard technology will become more intelligent. Pardon the puns, but “the sky’s the limit” once we “get off the ground.”

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