Increasing job efficiency through drone geospatial data

Jean-Christophe Zufferey, 26 Oct 2016

Aerial imaging used to involve either the commissioning of expensive manned planes or relatively low-resolution and sometimes out-of-date satellite imagery. However, with the arrival of drones or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), professionals in need of accurate geospatial data can achieve the bird’s eye view they require to assess the situation on the ground cost-effectively, at a higher resolution than satellites can provide, and–critically–at a time that suits their exact schedule and data needs.

Data captured by drones has a positive effect across several verticals, boosting the efficiency and productivity of professionals working across fields as diverse as land surveying, environmental protection, civil engineering, agriculture, forestry and many more. This data enables these professionals to map specific areas quickly, accurately and safely, including remote areas that were previously inaccessible by foot. As a result, drone technology is helping professionals in different fields achieve successes and breakthroughs that they could only dream of just a few years ago.

By looking at aerial data quality, data analysis, costs and future opportunities with drone data, we can explore the different ways drones increase success and job efficiency for professionals.

Improving aerial data quality

Collecting data via satellite imagery can be limiting. Results might be slow to arrive or the resolution not high enough to be of value. Drone technology, however, can offer the ability to collect crucial high-resolution data, of down to a couple of centimetres per pixel, on demand, without booking aircraft, waiting for weather conditions to improve, or traversing the landscape. Drones offer the convenience of working largely on demand.

This flexibility enables professionals to make better, timelier decisions to increase productivity and make educated decisions. In the agriculture industry, for example, drones make it simple for farmers and crop consultants to capture high-resolution photos of fields, covering up to hundreds of hectares/acres in a single flight at a far greater resolution than satellite imagery provides, even when there is cloud cover. By using image processing software, these photos can then be transformed into index maps, used to analyse crop health and create highly accurate ‘prescriptions’ to load into modern tractors, allowing professionals to optimise their application of water and chemicals. This makes not only for a more cost-efficient operation, but also a greener one.

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These shots can also be transformed into one large 'orthomosaic' image. Apply algorithms such as Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) to this image and one can create a reflectance map of crops. This map highlights exactly which areas of crop need closer examination, meaning less time spent scouting, and more time treating the plants that need it.

Accurate data analysis

Simply flying a drone and collecting images or video is, however, only the first step in using data. The user then needs to process this data in order to create data products such as maps, digital surface models, 3D point clouds and more, before evaluating these findings in order to benefit from the captured data. Processing the drone's images using photogrammetry software such as Pix4Dmapper Pro is crucial. This analysis might involve assessing the map of a newly altered post-flood landscape, recommending anti-erosion measures, determining a site’s new boundaries, measuring the volume of a stockpile, or assessing a property-related insurance claim.

When data is local, accurate, and up-to-date, work efficiency only improves.

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Reducing costs

The quick and non-intrusive form of data collection can reduce business costs. It allows operators to map an area more quickly than booking third-party imaging services or using slow, labour-intensive terrestrial techniques, which in turn decreases expenses. For example, collecting bridge inspection data with a drone is often now a single-day job for two staff members. Compare this to the traditional approach of bringing a team on-site to build scaffold or operate a hired platform in order to get at the underside of the bridge, and one realises using drone technology is much more cost-effective—not to mention safer for those staff involved. With fewer man hours required to produce large, accurate data sets, and no need for externally-sourced imagery, the result is vastly reduced costs.

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The future of drone data

Data has become one of the key drivers of almost every business in today’s transforming world and the ability to produce and analyse quality data on-demand looks set to become a critical component of any successful business or venture.

Drones in all shapes and forms are now being used across various verticals, from engineering to agriculture, all with common geospatial data needs, namely to document, map and model specific sites, in high-resolution, from above. The ways in which drones are being used around the world are expanding all the time, from creating real-time maps of how diseases spread , to mapping volcano craters  to assess the likelihood of further eruptions. Other fields that are set to benefit in the future include archaeology, search and rescue, emergency response, package/medicine delivery and internet service provision, to name just a few.

Since 2012, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been working to clear the path for the wider use of drones for governmental and commercial purposes. The FAA’s drone regulations were finalised in the form of Part 107 of Chapter 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). Now that these drone rules are in effect (have been effective since August 29, 2016, 60 days after the rule is published in the Federal Register), they will ease the administrative burden of commercial and governmental drone operators across the United States and enable more people and companies to utilise drone data.

Looking forward, drones and their data will become more accessible and used more widely by professionals in virtually every industry as organisations become aware of this technology’s safe and efficient info-gathering potential.

If you are interested in learning more about the benefits of drone technology, go to sensefly.com and browse through the content.

Author

Jean-Christophe Zufferey

CEO and co-founder, senseFly

Jean-Christophe Zufferey is the CEO and co-founder of senseFly, a global leading producer of aerial imaging drones for professional applications such as high-precision mapping and industrial inspection. He is a bona fide pioneer in the field of small, bio-inspired, autonomous flying robots, holding a PhD in Mobile Robotics from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) - where he taught and managed numerous robotics projects - as well as an MSc in Micro Engineering, the thesis for which he completed at Carnegie Mellon University in the US. A Swiss national, Mr. Zufferey is also a licensed pilot with a passion for flying helicopters and fixed-wing aerobatics.

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