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I remember watching an episode of Ted Talks back in 2013 which covered to topic of “athletic quadcopters”. I remember being in awe of the acrobatic movement and agility with which these tiny four-winged machines could move, completely unaware of the impact these quadcopters would have on modern civilization.

“Quadcopter” and “Drone” are terms used to described Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or UAVs. While drones and quadcopters are very closely related, “quadcopter” is a more specific term used when referring to a UAV with four wings. On the other hand, the term “drone” includes UAVs of a variety of sizes, shapes and styles.

The origin of drones can be traced as far back as 1849 when the Austrians lodged an aerial attack on the city of Venice. Now I know what you are thinking, “in the 1800’s people still wrote letters and used horses for transportation. What is this nonsense about UAV strikes?”.

By definition, the first unmanned aerial vehicle strike was truly that long ago. But rather than high-tech motorized UAVs like the ones used in the recent attack on Saudi Aramco oil facilities, the Austrians used balloons filled with explosives. This ended up being quite a disaster. A sudden change in wind direction sent some of the balloons in the wrong direction which resulted in the Austrians bombing themselves.

Apart from military use, modern UAVs have been of tremendous value in many industries including the land survey and mapping industry.

I came across an interesting case study where a UAV manufacturer teamed up with a land survey company to put utility drones to the test and determine what they can offer land surveyors in this day and time. A traditional survey of an 8 km2 road was conducted by the land surveyors followed by an aerial survey.  After completion of the two different survey methods the data was processed, and the results compared.

Although I believe that there is a human factor that needs to be taken into consideration and that professional land surveyors will never be replaced by any machine, the benefits of incorporating UVA’s as a survey instrument are definitive.

The land surveyors spent about 60 hours in the field and collected 1800 points using traditional instruments such as Global Positioning Systems and Total Stations. The drone survey was conducted in just over 2 hours and the 1324 images which were taken by the drone contained a whopping amount of 49, 807, 692, 307 points. The processing of captured images and data takes several hours but no manpower is needed. Aerial image processing software requires little to no attention after the initial data input.

The first benefit is as clear as crystal. The result of incorporating UAVs to conduct land surveying projects results in major time efficiency gains. Traditionally, 20 – 40 ground control points per km2 need to be placed which is a very time-consuming process. This number is drastically reduced to 3 – 5 when conducting an aerial survey. Difficult to access areas are no longer a problem and land surveyors do not need to struggle through bushes and fences. They can just fly their drone over any obstacles at the appropriate height to capture any needed data.

Secondly, as the old saying goes, time is money. Land surveyors can complete projects in a much smaller time frame which results in increased revenue as some overheads are reduced. This also enables them to move onto their next survey project much quicker. Less manpower is also needed when conducting an aerial survey which also has a beneficial financial impact.

The final point I would like to touch on is the accuracy of the data. Many variables influence the accuracy of drone survey data which I will discuss in more detail during a sequel blog, but according to most resources, I found that one can expect an accuracy of 1 – 3 cm which is quite impressive.

UAVs have the potential to revolutionize many areas of modern life and is surely a welcome addition within the land surveying community.