Posted on December 7th, 2011

The Future of Aerial Imagery

2161_unmanned-aerial-vehicle-francesc-sardo-palomeraEvery now and then you probably hear about Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), although it is most likely related to military drones. UAVs are now garnering attention in the commercial sector as an alternative to aerial photography.

At first glance, this seems like a costly and time consuming effort when you could just pay a professional to fly and capture the imagery for you. However, collecting aerial imagery with a manned plane takes time and preplanning; and for certain areas of research, timing is of the essence. This was the case for ecologists from the Forest Sciences Center of Catalonia in Catalonia, Spain. The researchers needed to accurately count a bird population on a remote island, but any disturbance would cause the birds to fly away.

Their solution to this problem was a handmade UAV which the ecologists constructed with only a $2,000 budget. They used a radio-controlled plane, equipped with a GPS unit and two natural color cameras. With their makeshift UAV they were able to count the bird population without disturbing the habitat and causing the colony to disperse. A similar homemade UAV solution was utilized by a research team from the University of Queensland to study marine mammal populations off the coast of Australia.

UAVs are extremely useful for these sorts of applications, but obviously such do-it-yourself aerial platforms have limitations. A few companies have taken this idea and turned it into a commercial enterprise. They use proprietary software to program an onboard computer which flies a specific path at a predetermined and maintained altitude with high accuracy. While these professional versions no doubt come with a high price tag, they afford users certain luxuries that could not otherwise be obtained. For instance, flights can be conducted at any time, providing that the weather isn’t monsoonal; and many important collection parameters remain the same for every flight, such as altitude and velocity.

For users who require a more hands on collection technique and need to be fastidious when it comes to timing, a UAV appears to be the best solution. The ends could certainly justify the means if numerous acquisitions are required over time. This is especially tantalizing for the more persnickety who put a high value on the ability to control as many aspects of a project as possible without relying on an outside source. This emerging technology is undoubtedly not the answer for every use case, but certain consumers may see a UAV as well worth the investment.


The Gatewing X100 is one of a number UAVs available for commercial consumers. (Photo Source:

Katie Nelson

Geospatial Ninja

(303) 718-7163

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