By Dr. Doug Miller, Penn State University
Aircraft and satellite imaging platforms have been the backbone of mapping in America for decades. The technologies and methodologies stimulated initially by military needs in World War II continue to this day—albeit with significant upgrades to modern GPS navigation systems and sophisticated high-resolution digital cameras and, increasingly within the last 15 years, lidar (light-detection and ranging) systems for precision land surface imaging and measurement.
Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) (“drones” in common parlance), carrying smaller, cheaper sensors are now beginning to revolutionize this traditional remote sensing and mapping paradigm. The marginal cost of flying a UAS is a fraction of the cost of current industry-standard satellite or aircraft systems. Since these systems can be flown at relatively low altitudes – less than 150 meters – the spatial resolution of the data collected with a UAS is much higher, on the order of a few square centimeters. When coupled with the temporal flexibility to deploy rapidly, UAS systems are a game changer in a wide range of mapping and environmental measurement and monitoring where high-quality images can be generated for mapping solutions over moderate size areas ranging from 100-500 acres.
The rapid expansion of UAS for geospatial applications has, however, suddenly moved the data “end-user” of remotely sensed data into the potential position of being a “data producer” with their own UAS platform. Current COTS UAS platform solutions for mapping range in price from $1,500 to $7,500. While this maximizes the utility of UAS-based remote sensing for a nearly-limitless range of applications, it also places additional requirements on the new, often flight-inexperienced user to work safely with advanced flight technology in an increasingly crowded U.S. airspace. This growing UAS airspace issue has been addressed by the FAA with its Part 107 rules that were put in place in August of 2016. These rules provide a balanced approach that seeks to allow operators to meet their UAS goals while also ensuring public safety. The Part 107 rules now require that UAS pilots, working in the commercial, research, and education realms must pass a written examination. Additionally, UAS platforms must be registered with the FAA.
At Penn State we now have a UAS Operations Manager who works with faculty, staff and students to ensure the safe operation of UAS for education and research. The University has a formal internal flight request system, a platform registration system that tracks all University-owned and FAA-registered UAS, and a formal submission system for all Part 107-registered pilot logs. UAS pilots working on education or research projects with Penn State-owned equipment are required to have a valid FAA license. These internal mechanisms allow Penn State to ensure FAA compliance as well as to promote safe and productive UAS operations that meet University underwriter requirements for indemnity from damage and injury caused by UAS mishaps.
Researchers, educators, and students at Penn State are engaged in applying UAS to wide ranging problems in the earth, environmental, engineering and geospatial sciences. Few of these individuals have had previous experience flying aircraft or working in the aeronautics industry. The blended nature of being both a “data collector” and a “data user” means a shift in knowledge requirements and an additional, but important, burden of responsibility to learn a new domain that includes flight rules and regulations as well as personal and public safety practices to ensure that people and property are not endangered during data acquisition.
This new blending of data collection and data use in the geospatial industry provides new opportunities for experienced individuals in BOTH the aeronautics and the geospatial domains to extend their expertise into the new geospatial mapping paradigm that is developing. The portfolio of Penn State World Campus online Geospatial Programs provide an entry point for individuals seeking a well-rounded education in remote sensing, geographic information systems, and geospatial intelligence.
To learn more about the GIS and Geospatial portfolio of programs and the tuition reduction available to you, your spouse and legal dependents, visit Penn State World Campus Edcor website.
About the Author:
Dr. Doug Miller is a Research Professor of Geography at Penn State University and the Director of the Center for Environmental Informatics and the Mobile Geospatial Systems Group in the Dept. of Ecosystem Science and Management.
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