Look up in the sky. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. Nope, it’s an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Well, not quite yet, but if all goes as planned and the potential privacy issues are resolved, this technology will be commercially available sooner than you might think. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2012 requires the safe integration of unmanned aircraft into the national airspace no later than September 30, 2015.

So, what does all of this mean for the power industry? It is hard to say, but we know that as the FAA works to figure out how to integrate UAV’s into U.S. airspace, engineers and scientists are working to rapidly develop the technology. The aircraft are getting smaller, lighter, and able to fly longer distances. At the same time, aerial imaging sensors are becoming smaller, more accurate, and able to send real-time data to the processors.

At the same time, digital imaging technology continues to improve. More and more surface data is able to be collected, which results in a more accurate model of the terrain. The grainy orthophotographs of old are now crystal clear. Computers and software are becoming more automated and able to process the larger volumes of data quickly. Soon, we can expect that all of this data will be gathered with unmanned aircraft.

For our aerial mapping team at Westwood, it represents our next major technology and process change. In the 1990’s, we developed Scale Accurate Digital Imaging (SADI), a PC-based softcopy photogrammetry tool which continues to fuel efficiencies for project design. In the 2000’s, Westwood added LiDAR data processing. Looking forward, UAVs will present us with a new means of data collection and likely new processing requirements which we expect will positively impact how we support project development. Reduced data gathering costs and shortened retrieval and processing times are likely. We will have to wait and see.

It’s safe to say however, that the advancement of UAVs will open the door for many new data providers and force out those who are slow to adapt. Success will require keeping a close eye on the technology and adjusting current methods and processes to fit. Though we may not yet be aware of the full impact that UAV’s will have on photogrammetry as we know it today, the one thing we do know is that the sky is the limit for this technology!