Geographic information systems, or GIS, have many different applications across numerous industries, including resource management, scientific research, development planning, disaster management, marketing research and more. It involves the gathering of data, most of which has a geographic component, into maps so that it can be visualized, analyzed and better understood. The insights that GIS enables can help people to understand patterns, monitor and forecast changes and make better decisions.
Typically, GIS data is collected through satellites, manned aircraft or terrestrial land surveying methods. Using satellites and manned aircraft, you can cover large areas quickly, but these methods can be expensive and only offer limited detail. Terrestrial data collection, on the other hand, offers a high level of detail but is time-consuming.
Recently, a new option has come to light — the use of drones. Unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, provide something of a middle ground between the two traditional sources of GIS data. Here’s how drones are revolutionizing GIS.
Drones enable a much faster turnaround time as compared to traditional GIS data collection methods. Using UAVs can often provide near real-time imagery, which can be crucial for applications such as disaster management. With UAVs, it is relatively simple to launch a drone to collect data whenever it is needed. With a manned aircraft, unless you have an on-call fleet, this process typically takes much longer. The faster data collection times that drones enable means that the information collected is more current, which often means it’s more useful. This increased speed is the reason the shipping industry is so interested in drone technology. Using drones could reduce shipping times from days to hours or even minutes.
The use of UAVs can also lead to cost savings. Today, drones are relatively affordable upfront, and they can reduce expenses over the long-term too. Rather than relying on third parties for data, GIS professionals can purchase their own drones, which they can use any time. The reduction in the amount of time it takes to collect data also means reduced costs, as does the fact that smaller teams can collect the same amount of data using unmanned vehicles.
The quickness and low cost of GIS data collection using drones doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice quality. In many cases, the imagery collected using drones is of a higher quality than what can be collected using manned aircraft or satellites. UAVs can fly much lower to the ground than manned aircraft — the maximum altitude allowed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is 400 feet. This enables drones to capture extremely high-quality images.
- More Power in the Hands of the User
With many other methods of collecting GIS data, researchers have to rely on third parties. With drones, however, the researchers themselves can pilot a drone and collect their data, providing they have the proper license. This puts the power in the hands of the researchers and gives them much more control over how their data is collected. Rather than having to rely on older or generic imagery, researchers can gather data whenever they needed to it and to the exact specifications they deem best.
- Reduced Environmental Impact
Using drones may also be more environmentally friendly than other data gathering methods. Replacing manned aircraft with UAVs eliminates the need for directly burning fossil fuels. If you charge your drone using electricity from renewable resources or power your drone using onboard solar panels, the operation won’t require the use of fossil fuels at all. UAVs also avoid the drilling, material sampling and other activities involved in terrestrial land surveying that may disturb the natural environment.
Drones are transforming a wide range of industries and applications. GIS is one example. Using drones instead of more traditional GIS data collection methods can provide numerous benefits to researchers including reduced turnaround time, costs and environmental impact as well as higher-quality imagery. Using drones also gives researchers more control over the data gathering process. The combination of drones and GIS is sure to bring about plenty of fascinating and valuable insights in the years to come.
Emily is a green tech writer who covers topics in renewable energy and sustainable design. You can read more of her work on her blog, Conservation Folks.