The energy, enthusiasm and the inventiveness that is going into UAV technology these days is truly remarkable.
There has been a proliferation of manufacturers, suppliers, users and conferences promoting the technology. We have all seen stunning video clips and images taken from UAVs – the low altitude aerial perspective enables unique views of a wide sweep of surrounds as well as the foreground focus of attention.
As a long-standing aerial surveyor I have watched the rise of UAVs with an open mind. Indeed the company that I part-own and work for is a CASA-registered UAV operator and we have invested heavily in the technology. We know what it takes to make a good UAV aerial survey and we can show some great examples of our work. However we are in the somewhat unique position of being able to compare the cost-effectiveness and the results of UAV aerial surveying against the latest full-scale aerial surveying equipment and methodology, because we have both capabilities.
I can say right here and now that the concept of UAVs as a platform for aerial surveying is suffering from a typical problem that plagues new technologies. It’s over-hyped. Yes, you can take an aerial photograph with a UAV. Yes, that photograph can be used to map an area of interest. But no, in 99% of cases you cannot do it as well, as fast or as cheaply as you can with a large-format aerial camera in a conventional fixed-wing aircraft. That may surprise you but it’s true.
With apologies to Ha-Joon Chang, the author of the excellent book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism I have set out here 20 things they don’t tell you about UAVs.
Nothing like a contrarian, ‘unpaid political announcement’ to bring clarity to a frothy discussion. He had me on Thing #1. A UAV is just a platform for a sensor.
The author, Mark Deuter, is the Managing Director of Aerometrex in Australia, a position which means he has spent his share of time staring at spreadsheets. I believe that anyone who reads this, anywhere in the world will find their head going up and down. It reminds me of a conversation I had over dinner with Colin Snow who had spent months researching precision agriculture only to come to the conclusion that you know what, it really doesn’t pencil out.
I believe that one has to consider the commercial drone phenomena from two distinctly different perspectives. On the one hand, you have applications where people are already paying to gather aerial data. This is the business that Aerometrex is in. Standards, deliverables, technologies, regulations and costs are understood and implicitly agreed to by providers, customers and regulators. In Geoffrey Moore’s terms, we are over the chasm and into mainstream adoption. In this scenario, to replace the status quo drones must obey the aerospace maxim of faster, lighter, cheaper. This article details those challenges.
On the other hand are applications where people have previously been unable or unwilling to pay for aerial data. In these markets, small UAVs represent the difference between nothing and everything. Standards, deliverables, technologies, regulation can all be TBD so long as the data is useful and the costs affordable. In this scenario the small UAV is faster, lighter and cheaper than nothing. Standards will evolve with experience to suit the market as it defines itself.
No matter where you are on this continuum as you look to the future you would do well to remember Mark’s closing line, “remember, in our industry it’s not about the platform, it’s about the sensor.”