Are Drones the Future of Geospatial?

Drones are pushing the limits of image processing and precision location analytics. Although drones are already quite popular in more developed countries, they are still an emerging technology in India. Unlike satellites, drones can be flown at customised altitudes over specific areas of interest (AOIs). This is useful when you need granular information for a large area, which would traditionally incur a high labour cost and time.

Also called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), drones are remotely controlled by a pilot on the ground. These are fitted with a camera, sensor(s), and a GPS that allow for a precise evaluation of an AOI. A flight path is designed over the AOI along which the drone captures images. The raw images are rigorously quality checked to be used for further analysis. These can either be used individually or processed to create a location-accurate single image (orthomosaic) of the AOI using GPS coordinates of control points on the ground (GCPs). Once accurately geolocated, these high-resolution orthomosaics can be used for precision analytics. Drone image processing is now being used by several industries across the globe. Some of these are agriculture, defence, construction, mining, oil and gas exploration, rescue operations, and disaster management.

A common problem faced in the agriculture sector is crop monitoring. Crop monitoring entails assessing the health and yield of crops, which helps farmers control losses and manage profit margins. However, manual monitoring is time-consuming and often gives inaccurate results. This problem further increases on large farms with multiple crops. Real-Time drone surveillance of a farm is useful for crop monitoring. Vegetation indices are run to provide organised statistical and visual insights over different sections of the farm. More information like crop count, growth stage, weed pressure, pest control, irrigation requirement, and harvest period is also acquired.

Visualising granular analytics of an entire field at once reveals patterns that are not as apparent otherwise. Organised monitoring allows better irrigation management and targeted response during a disease outbreak. Detailed inspection of the farm over time helps plan for the next agricultural season. Monitoring capabilities can also be extended to large solar farms where conditions of individual solar panels can be monitored over time by processing infrared images. This detects faults (rusting/ breakage) in individual panels and helps in optimisation of resources for maintenance and power production. Read more here.

Not just monitoring, drones can also help in remote object measurement (height, area, volume) as they capture data in 3 dimensions. This is used in cases like volume measurement of the stockpile in mining areas, volume measurement of liquid/gas inside large tanks, height measurement of buildings in urban sprawl.

Although drone surveillance enables efficient business practices, they raise concerns for security and privacy. Drones have a simple computing architecture that is easily hackable, putting the information captured at risk. Drones that access the company’s wireless network can also create a backdoor to that network when hacked, putting the company’s information at risk. This can be prevented using extensive encryption and authentication protocols by the company and a standard secure architecture approved by administrative bodies.

Flying of drones over people’s residences and public spaces invades personal privacy, causing discomfort and mistrust. This can be overcome with flight regulations set by administrative bodies. To regulate the use of drones in India, the Directorate General of Central Aviation introduced policies that came into effect from December 1, 2018. The policies define what will be classified as a drone, how it can be flown and the restrictions it will have to operate under. Although drones require high investment at the outset, the analytical capabilities of their precise high-resolution data make up for it.

Location is an important aspect of data, and drones are bridging the gap between granularity and areal coverage. Drones aid in resource optimisation in terms of time, capital, and personnel, and their data is revolutionising several sectors. The judicious use of drones to get granular information for big areas can empower decision-makers.

Priyanka Ghosh | GIS Analyst, GeoSpoc

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