point cloud uav article

UAVs Taking Flight with Outdoor Service Industries

Taking Flight

Individuals across outdoor service industries such as oil and gas, mining, construction, landfills, etc. agree that drones are the future for more reasons than one.

Garden of the Gods Highway Colorado Springs Colorado

Garden of the Gods Highway.

The commercial UAV or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (drones) market is growing exponentially every year due to the benefits these systems provide to outdoor service industries.  The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) forecasts that the number of commercial UAVs in the United States will grow from 42,000 aircraft in 2016 to an upside of as many as 1.6 million aircraft by 2021. Between conservative and upside estimates, that is three to forty times the growth rate of the hobbyist market.  So why is this market growing so rapidly?

The commercial UAV market is growing rapidly in outdoor service industries due to the benefits achieved with unmanned aircraft.  Some benefits include safety, project efficiencies, and new types of deliverables. “Outdoor service industries” include any type of industry for which services are rendered or received in the outdoors.  For this article, we will apply these benefits to land surveying, specifically for the transportation, oil and gas, and construction industries.


An increase in safety concerns is inevitable when operating in the field, as opposed to the office. These industries, all have some aspect of working outside of an office.  Concerns may be everything from moving traffic on a highway to a slope with a dangerously steep grade.

Aerial image of interstate 70 corridor shot with a fixed wing drone.

Aerial shot of I-70.

One example of mitigating safety risk is using UAVs for surveying on roadways and highways.  Traditional land surveying involves working in roadways to collect geospatial data which will then be used for designing or constructing a road improvement or replacement. Although land surveying companies take proper precautions with traffic cones, flashing lights, and flaggers (to flag and direct traffic), accidents still happen.

UAVs allow land surveyors to stay out of the roads while still collecting the geospatial data needed to complete the project.  Some tasks remain for which UAVs are not the correct tool, and conventional survey methods will be used.  But when the amount of work done from the roadway with a person is significantly reduced, so is the probability of accidents occurring.


Another benefit to using UAVs on projects is the unparalleled efficiencies that can be gained.  UAVs are able to capture significantly more data in a fraction of the time.  Why is more data better?  For oil and gas companies, often the final location of a well is not the original planned location. These changes may occur for a multitude of reasons such as an eagle’s nest that was not originally discovered, a new housing development that the well pad would encroach upon, or a possible geohazard that would put the well-pad at risk.  When these changes occur, the new area must be surveyed, increasing project costs and extending timelines. Pipeline Progress Reporting

Instead of surveying only the initial well-pad area, UAVs can quickly and easily collect a much larger area of land.  Then, if changes occur and the well-pad needs to be relocated, the data on the surrounding land has already been collected.  This helps to minimize return trips to the field, lowering costs and remaining on the scheduled timeline for the project.


Finally, there is the benefit of being able to provide new types of deliverables.  Traditionally, outdoor service organizations have worked in a two-dimensional terrestrial environment.  Companies typically plan and execute their projects using paper and electronic drawings and design plans.  Much like we ask what we ever did without cell phones before them, so are outdoor service organizations that have embraced using deliverables derived from UAVs.

3D LiDAR scan.

3D LiDAR scan.

Instead of observing a project from paper drawings at ground-level, project progression can be tracked in three-dimensional point clouds to see if any aspect of the project is off, within millimeter accuracy.  Instead of describing a vision for a new highway interchange, it can be illustrated with three-dimensional visualizations and aerial videography. Instead of planning a housing development from outdated imagery and basic topographic CAD (computer aided drafting) drawings, plans can be developed based off actual up-to-date aerial imagery combined with broad scale three-dimensional elevation models derived from point clouds.IMG_9882

With the use of UAVs, companies have the opportunity to look at projects different than ever before.  Outdoor service organizations can utilize enhanced planning methods at the front-end of projects, consume more data during the execution of those projects, and more accurately analyze the results of the project with UAVs. Projects can be planned and executed safer, more efficiently, and geospatial data is delivered in new and innovative ways.  The markets for commercial UAV services are taking off.

The Author: Keith Hulen is the Director of Business Development at Ascent Geomatics Solutions. He has worked with numerous clients in developing customized solutions related to UAV and LiDAR.

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