In the spring issue of Aerial Mapping, we identify the trend towards bigger platforms for better sensors, such as this Leica RCD30 camera mounted on a Swissdrones Waran TC-1235 UAV.

UAS Continue to Climb in 2013

The development of UAS (unmanned aerial systems) is the subject of many of our 2013 stories, covering different UAS platforms and applications.

PSM’s “Never Too Steep for a UAV” reveals how Trimble’s X-100 was applied to a challenging project mapping an open-pit nickel mine in New Caledonia. “The Promise of UAS in the United States” in the fall edition of Aerial Mapping describes the collaboration between geospatial professionals at Woolpert and UAS experts at Altavian to develop cutting-edge UAS customized to tackle the specific challenges of geospatial data collection. An interesting development in 2013 was the introduction of new helicopter-based UAVs: the Schiebel S-100 is described in PSM’s September editorial, “Already Here.”

“The Next Generation of UAVs” in the spring edition of Aerial Mapping illustrates the pairing of Swissdrones Waran helicopter UAS with Leica’s RCD30 camera. These two examples show how increased payloads (allowing for better sensors), longer flight times, and the inherent safety features of helicopter-based UAS make them a force to be reckoned with in the UAS field.

In the fixed-wing UAS world, Trimble introduced a new UAS, explored in Pangaea, including short take-off and landing capabilities, a more versatile camera, and workflow (integrated flight-planning, flight-prep, and image processing).


Getting a Head Start

By Neil Robicheau, project manager, LW Survey Company

Editor’s Note: With the rules for commercial UAS use in the United States still a year or so away, some surveying firms are getting a head start in adopting UAS into their operations by deploying them to work in Canada, where the rules have already been established (for the most part). LW Survey Company, a forward-thinking international surveying firm based in Colorado, has done just that.

Back in February 2013, a friend and former co-worker (who had started his own branch at an international survey firm) called me—it was a desperate call for help. My friend said, “I’m buying a Gatewing [X100 UAS]. You’ve always been good with equipment and technology—would you be interested in flying it?”

With any new technology, brochures and YouTube videos can make you believe that it’s as easy as pushing a button. I’ll admit I was wrapped up in the glitter, but I came back to earth when I flew my first project at a new oil sands development in northern Alberta. Our client needed high-resolution imagery for site assessment and reclamation baseline purposes.

We were trained to operate the X100 in almost ideal conditions, a large, open field south of Calgary, the same location as in the fall 2012 Aerial Mapping article, “Flight School.” But this area was heavily wooded, with meandering muskeg lowlands (muskeg is essentially a bog with aquatic grasses growing on top).

They say the hardest part of flying any aircraft is landing; the same applies to a UAS.

For the first two days, we were able to take off and land at a cleared well pad; however, this location allowed us to capture only about 600 acres of the 2,500 needed. It became apparent that I’d have to make my own glamorous commercial by taking off from a large stretch of muskeg, and landing in it.
Due to the directions of the muskeg patches, we couldn’t always take off or land into the wind and were mindful to carefully set out headings to avoid overshooting or undershooting into the small, black spruce trees or open pockets of water that littered the area.

Bottom line: we were able to complete the project in about a week, flying under the clouds.  It might have taken us that long to do the ground control for conventional aerial flights, and those might have been tough to schedule due to cloud cover. Despite the challenges, the X100 proved its worth—it would be tough to find another technology right now that could have allowed us to complete the task in the same amount of time, and definitely not for the same cost.

Any type of survey always produces some challenge. Flying a UAS is no different, and I’m sure that in 20 years we’ll be talking about a challenging takeoff as we do a difficult tripod setup today.


Is Your UAS Ready for 2015?

In 2015, the FAA is expected to open U.S. National Airspace for the use of small UAS. No doubt this will radically change the surveyor’s business model.  Many companies are eager to join the emerging UAS market.   But if unmanned vehicles are to share airspace with manned vehicles, the industry will need to establish rigorous standards similar to those that have made commercial air transport one of the safest modes of transportation ever conceived, designed, and implemented.

Standards will be needed for manufacturing, maintenance, training, and flying of UAS.  As an aerospace engineer with 25+ years of experience and a pilot with 11,000 flight hours, I am concerned about potential safety and reliability issues of some UAS being presented as “commercial” vehicles.  For example, some vehicles do not provide the pilot operator with a standard method for taking manual control of the vehicle in the event of an impending collision. I’ve also seen lots of designs with numerous single-point failure modes such that if one item fails, the vehicle is lost.  I.e., there are scant backup systems for items as critical as electricity. Addressing these issues is just the beginning of building vehicles worthy of the task, as well as earning public confidence.

There is too much of a tendency to concentrate on the cool and ignore the fundamentals. A UAS does not have to be fancy, but instead a rugged and reliable workhorse that can serve as a platform for a variety of cameras and sensors, much like the manned aircraft used for aerial mapping. But also just like a manned craft, permits and certificates from the FAA are necessary in order to operate a UAS in the National Airspace come 2015. This is a tedious and time-consuming process, but it separates true UAS from toys. More importantly, there should be training programs to go along with the vehicles that satisfy all the current FAA requirements. I stand behind that advice and (at the risk of sounding like a direct plug), my company has spent the past two years developing such UAS and training programs.

UAS will change the way we do a lot of things. Many surveying companies will either have to add the UAS platform to their toolbox or risk losing market share. But we will need to make sure that both the vehicles and pilots are held to exacting standards—so that regulators and the general public have confidence in our industry.

Paul Applewhite is founder of Applewhite Aero in Seattle, Washington.

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