GIS drones to lift US economy

March 11, 2015

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By 2017, the economic impact of integrating unmanned aerial systems into the U.S. economy will exceed $13.6 billion and add 70,000 new jobs, according to forecasts by the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. By 2025, this will increase to 100,000 jobs with an impact of $82 billion. The use of small unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, to collect data is a major part of AUVSI’s forecast.

Currently, most remote sensing data collection in the U.S. is either done by satellite or manned aircraft. Gathering data via manned flights is expensive, and satellite data may not be timely enough.

Drone flights, on the other hand, can be conducted daily and at a fraction of the cost of piloted aircraft.

However, the use of small UAVs goes far beyond data collection; the technology is changing sensing devices, data processing and data analysis. In the past, these functions were frequently separated. Data were often collected by one company and then handed over to another organization for processing and analyzing, using expensive and complicated GIS software from a relatively small number of established vendors. Now low-cost data acquisition is not only driving down the cost of these functions, it is also simplifying the process.

Skycatch, a San Francisco-based UAV company, offers a service called Workmode, which enables users to upload their RGB, multispectral and thermal data, sourced from UAV flights, to Skycatch. The company then creates maps, takes 2-D measurements of distance, length, and area and 3-D volume measurements, and monitors and tracks changes over time using change-detection heat maps.

Other drone companies like DJI and 3D Robotics are integrating georeferencing and photogrammetry tools into their flight planners. Companies like Precision Hawk and Agrolytics are offering more of a complete application-specific, cloud based solution. Even hardware manufactures like Velodyne and Riegel are downsizing their instruments to fly on sUAVs.

In the future, GIS applications will be less compartmentalized and more of an end-to-end cloud based enterprise solution. It is conceivable that Mark Heynen of Skycatch, or someone like him, will soon say, “We’re not a drone or data company; we are a GIS company.”

Company product examples

Below is an image from the waypoint photogrammetry tool in DJI’s ground station data collection system. DJI is the country’s largest sUAV manufacturer.

Drones Made Easy, a small San Diego-based sUAV company, has developed a third party interactive flight planner that automates data gathering by enabling pilots to visualize the flight area with calculated parameters — number of passes required, number of images needed and flight time — before the flight begins.

Universal Ground Control Software, or “U|g|CS”, is another third party mission planning and ground control system that enables pilots to build an interactive flight plan for gathering data. The U|g|CS system is available for individual and OEM UAV operations.

Agrolytics has developed an online service that enables growers to benefit from the latest in sensor and big data processing technologies sourced from UAV flights. The system reduces the complexity of data processing and data analysis.

Agisoft PhotoScan is a software application that performs photogrammetric processing of aerial digital images and generates 2-D and 3-D spatial data for GIS solutions.

DataMapper is a cloud based, end-to-end solution that allows users to upload, store, process and share aerial data. Specific applications are 3-D terrain mapping, plant height measuring, weed detection, plant counting and creating crop health indexes.

OpenPilot is an open source sUAV autopilot, created by an all volunteer non-profit community. The group was created in 2010 with an emphasis on making the platform especially suitable for aerial photography and aerial video applications.

The Velodyne VLP-16 laser distance measurement device, below, is designed for mobile and UAV applications. The product was down sized from the company’s HDL-65E and HDL-32E (LIDAR) devices.  

The RIEGL VUX-1 is a lightweight and compact laser scanner designed to mount on UAVs. GIS applications include mapping, surveying, construction site monitoring, agriculture and forestry.

MicaSense, a Seattle-based startup, has developed RedEdge™, a new lightweight, multispectral camera optimized for use in sUAV flights. This spring, MicaSense will offer a data service for storage, processing, analysis and presentation of multispectral data for agricultural remote sensing applications. This is another example of end-to-end GIS solutions.

A number of remote sensing applications will be affected by commercial sUAV operations, such as these below, from the U.S. Geological Survey site.

Point Cloud

Digital Surface Models


Color Infrared Orthophotography

Keyhole Markup Language

3D Modeling

Contour Maps

Volumetric Measurement

Normalized Difference Vegetation Index


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