Over the past few years, commercialization of drones otherwise known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has exploded in growth and popularity. This is due to improvements in cameras, avionics, telecommunications and the dauntless spirit of pioneers. Indeed, drone use has become increasingly common in many established enterprises helping to improve safety and efficiency. In this article we will examine the benefits for several of these sectors.
With ever growing food demand and increased concern over food security, precision agriculture is continuously being developed to improve yields while reducing waste. UAVs can benefit farmers by providing a variety of analytical data that can be used to monitor and assess the growth of crops.
Vegetation based on their surfaces as determined by their health, reflects and absorbs light differently. Hence, the variations in these interactions can be collected to create a vegetation index of ‘greenness’ or photosynthetic activity. Photosynthetically active i.e. healthy plants absorb more red light of the electromagnetic spectrum (near infrared radiation). Conversely, stressed or dead plants absorb less because of a lower chlorophyll content.
SenseFly, a specialist in agri-drones, partnered with multispectral specialists to capture such image data at specific frequencies across the electromagnetic spectrum. Although invisible to the naked eye, data from these infrared cameras allow farmers to identify plant infections, water stress and soil fertility. Early identification and quick action to remedy the situation is crucial to prevent an entire crop to fail.
Besides this, many UAVs have some form of autonomous ability that easily adjust their altitudes and flight paths based on the surrounding topography. This has allowed development in crop spraying and aerial planting that can be faster and cheaper than with comparable machinery and manpower. With further sophisticated sensing technologies like radar or LiDAR, there is potential for drones to even conduct harvesting operations.
In the construction sector, UAVs can provide invaluable data along the entire value chain to provide information from site planning to the sale showcase of the property. Additionally, surveillance and safety of a site can be augmented while verifying contractors’ reports and material supply levels.
Even with basic optical cameras UAVs offer accurate mapping of surface areas with exact coordinates and measurements to create cartographical representation of land and construction-in-progress. This requires the use of ground control points (GCPs). Much like traditional land surveying, these points on the ground are known coordinates. With enough GCPs and GPS data, a drone operator can precisely produce a globally accurate aerial map over a large area faster than with conventional means.
Furthermore, this data can be integrated into existing building information (BIM) modelling systems with the use of photogrammetry. By capturing a vast number of overlapping photographs along a UAVs flight path, an orthomosaic map, that is a geometrically correct image of the site can be created similar to satellite captures. Having been adjusted for topographic relief, lens distortion and camera tilt, these images are a truly accurate representation of the surface. For inspections, the same applies to creating 3D maps that allows precise measurements of site attributes against planning blueprints.
For mining, the same benefits of a bird’s eye view in the agriculture and construction sector applies. However, photogrammetry is much more valuable here due to the nature of open-pit mines and quarries.
For example, stockpiles of mining commodities are irregular in shape and exhibit craters. Manual ground surveying is slow and costly as the surveyor has to climb around the stockpiles to get an accurate estimate. Stockpile management is a vital part of the mine’s ecosystem as it determines scheduling, exploration and consignment. With UAVs, a constant up-to-date 3D reconstruction of the digital terrain model can be regularly created that provides accurate volume calculations of the entire mine.
With an accurate model from the UAV data, logistics can thus be managed with ease as managers can plan and execute hauling routes. A more accurate plan that accounts for length, slope and turning angles readily allows further efficiency in both safety and fuel costs. On the environmental front, regular UAV surveys can record and monitor mine progress according to regulatory needs in addition to identifying hazards such as wall fractures in high-traffic but difficult to reach areas.
It cannot be overstated that UAVs can greatly enhance industries. They are relatively inexpensive to the vast amount of data they can collect while covering far wider areas. This greatly reduces manpower needs and improves workflow efficiency. UAV technologies will continue to improve and expand based on economies of scale. With that in mind, the establishment of a well-trained team of drone pilots and analysts is key to harnessing this technology and its value.
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