Drones. Quad-copters. Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). Whatever name you call them; small UAS are quickly becoming a game changer across multiple industries. From film and television, to real estate, to mapping and construction, UAS are opening the door to a host of new opportunities. By now, most people have seen the breathtaking videos posted on YouTube or heard about UAS in the news. What may be less known is that UAS have a real and important role to play in land and energy related projects.

Good quality, consumer-grade UAS can be purchased for around $1,000. Coupled with a GoPro-type camera, stunning video and still images can be generated in a matter of minutes. The contractor or developer benefits from visually-impactful marketing images, ready to post on a website or social media. Construction inspections and progress documentation, visualization imagery for a public meeting, and unique aerial footage can be generated at a fraction of the cost and time of a traditional manned aircraft.

While these uses are indeed very valuable, they are just the tip of the iceberg compared to what a professional-grade UAS can do. Imagine having a 200-acre project under construction. What if you could create Google-like aerial photography and detailed digital elevation models in near real-time, several times throughout the life of the project? One advantage: unexpected earthwork variations can be addressed using high-quality data and desktop design software, rather than making guestimates on how to solve the issue in the field. What if you use an infrared camera to quickly detect anomalies in the heat signature of a large solar farm? These sorts of UAS solutions are happening today. In the future, the sky’s the limit -pun intended! As a variety of sensors become miniaturized and cost-effective, there’s no telling what the next few years hold in store.

The current regulatory environment poses some challenges for the adoption of UAS. Operations for commercial purposes of UAS are regulated more stringently by the FAA than those of a weekend hobbyist, even if they are both photographing similar things. Under Congress’ direction, the FAA drafted rules in February 2015 to allow the integration of small UAS into the U.S. aviation system. An FAA official recently testified before Congress saying the draft rules will be finalized by June 2016. In the meantime, under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, the FAA can grant exemptions to commercial entities so they can use UAS in their business operations. Several hundred exemptions have been granted to commercial entities so far, with more every day.

These are exciting times for the small UAS industry and the folks that are coming up with creative ways to use them. The technology is improving on a weekly basis and quickly propelling the business to new heights. Fortunately, one doesn’t need to wait several years to benefit from UAS – the future is now!

Chad Grismer, PE