Unmanned Ariel Systems (UAS), otherwise known as drones, are becoming an increasingly useful tool in the environmental land surveying, mapping, and engineering fields. By combining this aerial imaging technology with more conventional services, companies add an entirely new perspective to the documentation of project sites and structures. Particularly for projects were safety and accessibilities issues are major concerns, drone technology offers significant advantages.
As drone technology continues to advance at a rapid pace, its capabilities to provide highly accurate mapping also continues to evolve. The level of topographical accuracy tends to vary according to the project parameters, which also has a direct effect on the required level of expertise of the UAS pilot. As a result, drone enthusiasts often define accuracy is two different forms.
- Relative Accuracy is the degree to which a specific point on the map relates to other locations in the nearby vicinity or project site.
- Absolute Accuracy refers to the measurement of a specific geographic point in relationship to “real world,” fixed, or global coordinates.
Relative accuracy requirements are typically reserved for small-scale measurements, monitoring the general progression of constructions sites, and assessing site damage after weather anomalies. Absolute Accuracy is better suited for the documenting land title projects, environmental records, and overlays of geo-referenced site plans, for example.
These standards for accuracy are well documented in the American Society of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS) guidelines. Depending on the project and desired levels of required accuracy, the survey company will hire a UAS pilot with the proper credentials and levels of expertise.
Qualified drone pilots
In a recent study, Carnegie Mellon University sites “unauthorized and ‘rogue’” UAS operators as a significant challenge in the field of aerial survey mapping using drone technology. As the technology becomes increasingly more in-demand, the lack of qualified and properly credentialed drone pilots often leads to fierce competition in the marketplace. While accuracy and expertise are always key considerations, safety should always be paramount.
UAS projects must be completed in accordance with the Part 107 guidelines of the Federal Aviation Association (FAA). Operating requirements are very specific, including restrictions on flight times during the day and evening, minimum weather visibilities, and maximum allowable altitudes and speeds. Meanwhile, UAS pilots must maintain proper FAA certification called a Remote Pilot Airman Certificate.
- The drone pilot can be as young as 16-years of age.
- The pilot must successfully pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test conducted by an FAA-approved facility.
- In cases where the aspiring drone pilot is already in possession of a Part 61 pilot certificate, he or she must complete a pilot review process in addition to a UAS training course provided by the FAA.
It is also noteworthy that the FAA does not require the certified pilot to adhere to any airworthiness standards of the drone equipment prior to flight, unlike those required for a commercial or private aircraft, for example. Therefore, the safety-related responsibilities involving a preflight visual and operational safety check fall directly on the shoulders of the UAS pilot – and by extension, the employing environmental surveying company.
According to a recent Yale Environment 360 interview with world-class ecologist Lian Pin Koh of ConservationDrones.org, “aerial equipment and technology have made drones a key part of conservation strategies for marine reserves, rainforests, and many other landscapes, mostly in the developing world. “While not everyone can become a certified UAS pilot, those with the proper credentials and professional background are in high demand. For companies specializing in environmental land surveying, mapping, and engineering, investing in drone technology and a properly certified pilot may well be worth the limited financial expense for years to come.