How 3D Robotics’ Souped-Up Drone Puts Aerial Surveying on the Map

March 8, 2016, 5:14 PM UTC
Courtesy of 3D Robotics

On a construction job site, several obstructions impede the work of land surveyors. Piles of debris. Large dumptrucks. Stacks of construction materials. Such obstacles make a surveyor’s task a daylong affair, and a hazardous one, as they maneuver their total stations and laser scanners to different parts of a job site.

Naturally, 3D Robotics (3DR) decided to fly in with a drone—just as competition for commercial drone customers should start heating up.

This week, the California-based, Chris Anderson-helmed drone company announced a souped-up version of its hobbyist Solo drone, complete with a cloud solution for aerial mapping and surveying, one that should make the process of creating 2D renderings and maps of job sites faster and safer.

Using 3DR’s 4-pound, tablet-controlled Solo, surveyors simply trace a flight pattern on a Google Map and then keep eyes on the drone as it flies autonomously over a construction site. For quicker aerial surveys at a low resolution, a GoPro camera is affixed underneath. But for higher-resolution aerial surveys, the Solo uses a more powerful industrial camera, the UMC-R10C, made by Sony.

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Doing a land survey with one of these setups should take roughly 20 minutes without the need of any laser scanning equipment. How those images get converted into maps is where Autodesk, 3DR’s partner in the endeavor, comes in. A new software platform Autodesk calls Forge is able to parse data on camera angles and field location for each photo taken by drone, and then process it all. The survey data is accessible in two places—Autodesk’s servers, and in the cloud through the Solo tablet—and, with a finger swipe, able to be converted into 2D and 3D maps on the job site.

“You can rapidly compare a construction plan against reality, and remain compliant with country regulations,” says Keith Bigelow, a 3DR spokesperson. “You’re doing inspections but not putting individuals at risk, and you’re always working with near real-time data.”

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Sure, what a surveyor gets out of this corporate collaboration is convenient, but what’s more interesting about this news is its timing.

As drone enthusiasts and industry observers know, the Federal Aviation Administration’s commercial regulations for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are forthcoming—Bigelow expects them in Q2 this year—which means a variety of business applications for drones are open to companies without the hassle of applying for an exemption. Currently, any company that wants to fly drones for revenue-related reasons needs a Section 333 exemption from the FAA, which has given out a little more than 3,000 of them.

With the rules in place, all a company needs is a drone-certified pilot—which one can get with the aerial equivalent of a driver’s license test—before they start using drones to disrupt a host of normal practices, with construction surveying being one of them.

Most construction customers got their 333 exemptions last year,” says Autodesk (ADSK) spokesperson Dominique Pouliquen.

What’s the future commercial market for drones?

It’s no surprise, then, that 3DR’s announcement comes now. Other companies, including Verizon (VZ) and Ford (F), have made their own announcements in 2016 all relating to incorporating drones into their own businesses, for their own customers. There’s an air-grab underway for the open skies.

The market for drones is expected to hit $91 billion by 2024, according to the Teal Group, which means more companies will begin rolling out easy, commercial ways for customers to use their own drone.

“I don’t know of any construction customers from Autodesk not considering a UAV solution today,” Pouliquen says. It’s not only becoming a cool solution, but also a useful solution.”

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