Editorial: The End of Topo?

A 85Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

In my recap of the Esri AEC Summit in our August issue, I gave a status report on UAVs. In my report I mentioned that I saw UAVs as mostly a replacement for traditional photogrammetry. Even with the FAA’s interminable footdragging, it’s obvious there’s been a lot of interest, and indeed, as I was writing this editorial, the FAA gave waivers to both Trimble and Woolpert. According to Trimble’s press release, the FAA exemption will allow the company to conduct commercial operation of its UX5 Aerial Imaging Solution in the U.S. But this raised a question: does this mean that Trimble will begin actual gathering of data as opposed to merely selling UAVs? Granting a waiver to Woolpert, as a company who will be doing the actual flying, makes sense, but there’s no way Trimble could control the activities of the companies it sells UAVs to, so does this mean Trimble is getting in the biz?

I checked with Todd Steiner, marketing director for Trimble’s Geospatial Imaging Solutions, and he said "In the near term, Trimble will use this exemption to begin conducting research activities, sales demonstrations, and flight training with our partners and customers within the US. We will also initiate commercial activity as we pursue follow on steps with the FAA." He went on to say, "In addition, we are working to determine how this exemption might be further leveraged to help our partners and customers. With Trimble’s authorization in place, we can directly support their needs where that is appropriate. Our customers and partners will also be able to apply for authorization to operate our UAS under the conditions of our exemption. We believe that these authorizations will be available on a more streamlined basis now that Trimble has received its exemption."

In a recent discussion about UAVs on our 10,000+ member LinkedIn Surveyors group, one surveyor said he had been using terrestrial LiDAR to perform topographic surveys for more than seven years…"at 5­8 times the speed of a traditional crew, in superior horizontal and vertical detail. My obstacle now is having the scanner fixed. Provide me a small mobile platform, such as UAS, and I increase my speeds even 4x more. This technology could allow what would take a traditional crew 12-14 hours to collect (two field days) to be collected in 30 minutes." He went on to say, "I see these platforms (from a surveying aspect) as far more than just a replacement for photogrammetry. Given less restrictive rules they will be a complete replacement for traditional topography."

A chill ran down my spine as I realized that I had been missing something. I’d always viewed photogrammetry for land development as something that was only feasible for large projects, and unless flown very low, the inherent lack of accuracy kept it from being used on most small land development projects or ALTAs, until the last six years traditional bread and butter for our work. So far, most of the drones use traditional photogrammetry, but with the advent of drone-borne LiDAR, we will begin to see more incorporation of high-accuracy DEMs. So, it appears that technology will continue to chip away at our domain, this time topographic surveys.

Trying to make a point, I did weigh in on the LinkedIn discussion and tell the surveyor, "I sincerely hope that you are charging the 12-­14 hour crew rate!" His response? "I get what you’re saying but in a free-market system trying to cling to lofty ideas of value leaves you unemployed. Not looking for a race to the bottom, but a slight competitive edge. Some reduce cost by reducing quality. Some reduce cost by improving the processes. Some attempt to sustain or increase costs because of increased quality. Which one do you suspect will still be a thriving business years later?"

A 85Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE