There has been a lot of hype the last few years about how unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or drone technology will shape the mapping industry. But as with any newer technology, it takes a convergence of technology, regulatory, social and other ideas to make a technology viable in the marketplace. Currently, UAVs fill a small niche in the mapping industry by leveraging photogrammetry, but with the right technology and regulatory advances, it can play a much bigger role in the future. Here is my wish list of regulatory and technology changes we need to see in order to make UAVs more than just a small niche technology but rather a defining force that will change mapping paradigms as we know them.
Regulations: Regulations today are primarily aimed at the novice UAV user, not at the commercial user, therefore, regulations will need to adapt to the commercial UAV user in order for practical applications in mapping.
- Line of Sight: UAV technology will not advance in mapping until we get away from the concept that drones must be in the controller’s line of sight. Regulations will need to allow technology advances in flight planning to permit UAV courses to be charted online and flown from a distance.
- Flight Height: Proposal 107 caps the flight eight at 500 feet above ground. To maximize UAVs for mapping, the height will need to be raised in order to cover more ground in a cost effective manner.
- Night-Time Operation: Some of the advantages of IFSAR technology is that it can flown at night, avoiding busy air traffic times. Current regulations only permit use during daylight hours – official sunrise to sunset. The daylight only restrictions currently on the books will need to be removed and/or updated to allow night-time operation.
- Weight Restrictions: Current regulations restrict UAV weight to less than 55 pounds. If you add technologies such as LiDAR and IFSAR for mapping purposes, UAVs in the future will need to have this restriction removed in order to be viable in the marketplace.
- Battery Life/Flight Times: Current battery designs limit flight times of UAVs, therefore, limiting its coverage area and usefulness in the mapping industry. Innovations in battery design that leverage solar power and extend battery life to days would greatly add value to UAVs for mapping
- LiDAR & IFSAR Technology: If we want to get beyond photogrammetry for mapping, these two technologies are the obvious choice, adding elevation data to the mix. Both sensor technologies will need to become smaller, lighter and less expensive for practical applications within UAVs or drones.
- Mobile Flight Planning & Control Software: The UAV industry will need to provide web-based flight planning and control software that can manage longer flight paths and flight times and enable full automation from the software. The software will also need to recommend flight paths given a particular AOI so full coverage is attained through the flight planning software.
- Additional Sensors: Longer flight plans will require the UAV to perform tasks on its own like collision avoidance. Other useful sensors include weather and atmospheric sensors which could prevent a drone from going into adverse conditions. Sensors on the plane will have to provide in-flight feedback on adverse weather conditions and provide the software will need to recommend changes in flight paths due to this feedback.
- Higher Altitudes: Technology will have to accommodate higher altitude flight and the problems associated with it like colder temperatures, stronger winds, and greater barometric pressure all while carrying on its mission of mapping the Earth.
The above wish list of UAV regulatory and technology changes, if fulfilled, will become the game changer in the mapping industry that everyone envisions it to be. What other technology enhancements and regulatory improvements do you think are required to make UAVs more than a niche technology in the mapping industry?