The Truth About Drones in Mapping and Surveying

According to 2015 statistics from the US Department of Labor, there are 44,300 surveyors in the United States. But mapping is practiced by a larger population of cartographers, topographers, photogrammetrists, civil engineers, and geographers – it’s not exclusive to the surveying industry. The American Society of Civil Engineers lists more than 150,000 members in 177 countries, and the Imaging and Geospatial Society has 7,000 supporters. All of these disciplines can be grouped under a broader category called geographic information systems (GIS). GIS professionals provide a wide variety of land-related services like identifying property boundaries, subdividing land, and surveying construction sites for placement of buildings. They also produce topographic and hydrographic maps, volumetric calculations for stockpiles, and flood insurance maps, among other services.

The number of surveyors is actually projected to decline by two percent from 2014 to 2024 because of improved surveying technology. Even though surveyors are a fraction of the broader population of GIS professionals, how will the improved surveying technology that is affecting them apply to that broader GIS population? And given the downbeat forecast for surveyors compared with the numerous upbeat billion dollar projections of drone use from the FAA and other industry observers, the question becomes, Where do commercial unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or drones fit into the surveying technology mix?

With those questions in mind we just completed a study titled “The Truth About Drones in Mapping and Surveying,” The report is the fourth in series of studies that look objectively at each major commercial market for drones and drone technology. This report is co-authored by Bill McNeil, Contributor / Advisor, and Colin Snow, CEO and Founder, Skylogic Research, LLC, and it shows how small drones have been used successfully in surveying and mapping thus far and outlines the lessons learned. It goes on to discuss the opportunities and challenges for GIS professionals, reviews competitive and traditional approaches offered by incumbent technology, and discusses what’s next for drones in this sector. Here is an excerpt:

“Drones are going to have a major impact on the surveying and mapping industry, but perhaps to a lesser degree on traditional surveyors. As mentioned earlier, the Department of Labor is forecasting a 2% drop in the number of surveyors from 2014 to 2024. On the other hand, the Labor Department is projecting 29% growth for the photogrammetry category. This means more and more photogrammetrists will do surveying work and more surveyors will use photogrammetry tools for mapping. In other words, inexpensive data collected from drones has and will continue to blur the lines between photogrammetry and mapping.

There is another issue at play here. The process of physically flying a drone is not unique to map making. The type of data collected is determined by the instrument payload — not by the drone operator. In other words, it really doesn’t make any difference if the application is precision agriculture or mapping a pipeline, the deliverables are the information extracted and processed by the crop consultant, the photogrammetrist, or the surveyor.

Drone technology is moving extremely fast. It’s very possible many surveyors would rather hire a service provider to collect data than invest in a tool that can be obsolete is as little as six months. They may also consider short-term leases to ensure their technology is relatively current or just rent a drone when needed. Regardless of how small drones fit into the workflow, they will not only affect the industry, but they will also create new opportunities for independent contractors who, based on their experience, may be able to fly and collect data less expensively than surveyors. The value add is the knowledge and data processing skills of the surveyor and photogrammetrist, not their drone-flying skills.”

 

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