What Does It Take to Effectively Use a Drone as a Surveying Tool?

The efficiencies that drones can enable and create in surveying are both real and quantifiable. UAVs have impacted the way in which surveyors think of accuracy and have gotten professionals to make better decisions around aerial surveying. The ability to create topographic maps more efficiently than ever before is readily available, but what kind of an approach do you need to take to get the most accuracy and efficiency out of using drones?

That’s the exact question experts from Propeller and Aerotas looked to answer during a recent webinar, UAV as a Surveying Tool. James Rabey, Director of Marketing at Propeller, and Daniel Katz, Co-founder at Aerotas, discussed numerous technical and operational issues that surveyors need to know during the webinar. They talked through the five components of a successful drone program, how surveyors address UAV data accuracy, what drives surveyors to start using drones and plenty other topics during the presentation.

I was able to connect with both Daniel and James to ask a few follow-up questions about the topics they detailed during the webinar. Watch their full presentation right here.

 

Jeremiah Karpowicz: During the webinar, you mentioned that you’ve seen surveyors embrace drone technology in a similar manner to how they embraced GPS. Do you think that embrace is more about the recognition of what drones can specifically do for them, or because they’re cognizant of how the technology might impact the industry as a whole?

James Rabey

James Rabey

James Rabey: Its been primarily what it can do specifically for them. Surveyors I have spoken to talk about how often they have had to spend time “standing in a field with a peg” and are constantly looking at ways to make their time on site more efficient. As Daniel mentioned in the webinar, surveyors are seeing drones as a “broad brush” tool that they can use to reduce the time to create high level survey data.

 

Daniel mentioned that he believed the Propeller dashboard gives a good balance in terms of enabling users to present an accurate representation of a site with a very simple, sharable interface. Was finding that middle ground an active consideration for Propeller?

James Rabey: Absolutely. Our aim from the start was to make drone data valuable by making it trusted and widely shareable. Rather than try to replicate the many good sophisticated design applications used by experts, we focus on improving common workflows without disrupting them.

 

You talked about the importance of “doing it right first” to help build the trust in the technology, and how it can be that much harder to use drones if that doesn’t happen. What advice would you have for someone who wants to make sure they’re doing everything they can to establish and build that trust in the technology for their organization?

James Rabey: Start with the end in mind. By that I mean understand who will use the data, how they will use it and – most importantly – why they will use it. You should then design your entire drone program on delivering against those requirements – accuracy, quality, frequency, accessibility. That should inform what technology and expertise you need to acquire it.

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During the webinar, you talked though the five components of a successful drone program, and that data processing piece is one I’ve seen users come back to over and over. Does the core issue here relate to operators thinking of drone data as something inherently different? Or is it just about operators and stakeholders needing to take the time to work through the logistics associated with how they’re integrating drone data?

Daniel Katz

Daniel Katz

Daniel Katz: This is actually one of those topics that we see end-users often get really bogged down in and lose a ton of time (and money) trying to figure out. Part of the problem is there are really two separate pieces to “data processing” in most drone applications: the processing done on the images to produce a cohesive data product, and then the processing done on that data product to create the user’s final deliverable. For land surveyors and mine managers, the first part this “data processing” is stitching together the raw photos into an orthophoto and digital surface model. The second part of “data processing” then differs for these two groups: land surveyors need to take this orthophoto/DSM and produce a topographic map, while mine managers most often need to just extract quantity volumes. In both cases, in order for a drone to be a viable tool, these users need to get to a final data type that they (and their clients) are accustomed to and can utilize. Unfortunately, more often than not, when users take a DIY approach to building out their drone program, they don’t appreciate the importance of starting with this end deliverable and working backwards to spec out the right program.

 

Breaking down the technical details associated with AeroPoints and traditional ground control methods was one of your talking points, and I thought it was a great illustration of how this technology can change the approach for professionals. When surveyors struggle with adoption, is it more about them not understanding these kinds of distinctions, or because of a technical issue related to how they’re attempting to use the technology?

Daniel Katz: I think different surveyors struggle with different factors. For some, it’s a struggle with changing their business model: if they’ve always charged by the hour and our Aerotas Mapping System reduces the hours it takes by 60%, then how will they charge their clients? For others, it’s a concern with the viability of the technology: do they trust our reporting on our drone mapping system’s accuracy per ASPRS map accuracy standards? For still others, it’s a challenge about the fundamental change to their workflow: with a mapping system like ours, AeroPoints, or the drone data processing workflow, how do they think about the flow of their projects and business? It’s a lot to negotiate but we’re helping dozens upon dozens of land survey business owners navigate these challenges successfully and profitably.

 

You mentioned that some clients have told you their use of a drone has resulted in 60% fewer man hours. What does that kind of savings mean for them as a business? Can they take on that much more work because of it? How does it impact the product they’re able to deliver?

Daniel Katz: The per-project time savings our clients report with our drone mapping system for surveyors continues to amaze us. We businesses take advantage of these savings and other benefits in a few different ways. I am most encouraged when I hear about our clients using our system without even marketing it: they are using it to bid more projects at a faster rate, bid them lower than their competition, and then profit more on each project. Other clients instead choose to focus on the drone as an opportunity to expand their business, for example approaching quarries or landfills they right now map once a year and offering monthly quantity surveys. And almost all are using the drone to produce value-added products to their clients, for instance by using the Propeller dashboard to give their clients current high-resolution 3D models of their property in an extremely usable way.

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