Drone Mapping in digital transformation: Four key questions answered
An iconic scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1959 thriller North By North West features a spray cropper chasing Carry Grant’s suited Madison Avenue ad man character through dusty farmland. If this film were to be remade today, the plane would most likely be substituted for a drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).
And rather than liberally squirting harmful pesticides over acres of farmland as traditional spray croppers do, UAVs with specialist cameras and drone mapping software can enable sustainable farming, producing highly accurate aerial maps and other data to identify areas of trouble and focus treatment on particular areas.
Given the vast amounts of uninhabited space farms cover and the fact that drones help map large areas in a quick, cost-effective manner, Agriculture has embraced drone-mapping as a key plank in its digital transformation, but so too have many other industries.
Commercial drone mapping is being used in a variety of sectors to inspect power lines, buildings and energy plants in hard-to-reach places and enabling surveys on vast sites that days and weeks rather than months to produce.
Even in the field of law enforcement, drone mapping is being trialled on crime scenes to retrieve accurate forensic data.
For companies considering this area of digital transformation, here are some basic points to help understand the practice of mapping, the technology and current innovations.
1) Define drone mapping?
The gathering of aerial surveys by a UAV and specialist high-resolution cameras which, when used in conjunction with other data and software, can help build high-resolution, centimetre-accurate 3D and 2D maps and models. The practice is able to produce mapping data far quicker – in some studies up to 90% faster – than manual methods and has safety benefits too in areas of dangerous terrain or when working at height.
2) What are the key technologies?
Common capture devices attached to drones include RGB cameras for photogrammetry – which sample red, green and blue spectrums of light to create the image; as well as multispectral, thermal or light detecting LiDAR sensors which can detect differences in vegetation for instance, or faults at energy plants. Key to deriving value from this drone-gathered data is an array of specialist drone mapping software that stitches this data together to create maps and models that are used for the calculations, measurements and other valuable insights.
While it’s still a fledgling industry, a growing number of vendors now provide drone mapping software – offering everything from end-to-end data platforms to single use applications, depending on the use case.
Current vendors include US-based software outfit DroneDeploy, which offers photogrammetric and analytic software for drones with cloud-based processing; respected Swiss photogrammetric firm Pix4D; construction-based drone data collector, Propeller and Russian based Agisoft, which offers both a photometry and 3D modelling package.
3) How is drone mapping being used?
Three chief cross-industry uses are inspecting, measuring and surveying. This makes it ideal in industries such as mining, which requires up-to-date and detailed maps used to manage stockpiles, water drainage, erosion detection, and pit management.
In surveying meanwhile, drone mapping can create a detailed map of a roof, using data from RGB and IR sensors to detect areas with leaks or poor insulation coverage. On a larger scale the energy industry can use aerial maps to inspect solar farms, spotting problem spots in the solar panels with the aid of infrared imagery.
In most countries, aviation authorities do not permit drones to be flown near people or over built-up areas, restricting their use-cases in urban areas (unless a special permit is granted) which is why most drone mapping is currently restricted to remote areas.
4) Where’s the current innovation?
As the software matures and end users become more familiar with its capabilities use cases are becoming more sophisticated, mapping data over virtual sites to track progress.
US contractor Hensel Phelps, for instance, has used Propeller’s drone surveying software to give better insight into onsite construction activities at a Honolulu airport terminal extension in Hawaii.
This involved feeding processed drone data into a digital twin of the worksite, allowing the team to track progress, visualise changes and communicate plans while the 3D models provided a clear picture of unsafe areas and potential workflow conflicts, without workers physically having to visit those areas.
This demand for automated site documentation and digital twins has only grown since the COVID pandemic, which has driven many physical operations off site.
It’s a situation that led to DroneDeploy’s acquisition of New Zealand based robotics software company Rocos in August this year, as the drone mapping software company looks to add on-the-ground automation and data gathering to its suite of services, enabling customers to deploy and coordinate both aerial and ground robots on their job sites.
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