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September 28, 2016

Fixed-wing or multi-rotor UAV? Each shines in the right environment.

Watching our Lancaster fixed-wing UAV leave the arms of its launch operator and zoom off into the sky under the power of its electric motor, then glide gently to a landing in a swaying grain field is a thing of beauty.

I’ve never been a pilot or a model airplane buff, but I just love maps – I always have. And after we all started seeing military drone footage on the evening news a decade or so back, it didn’t take me long to think about the potential of UAVs to improve mapping. If there’s a new way of acquiring data for maps, I’m for it.

Over my 35-year career in surveying I’ve always been eager to apply new technology to improve the surveying process and the products we provide our clients. So as UAVs evolved from being secretive military systems, to retail toys for individuals, and at last onward to working tools with commercial uses, we quickly became interested.

In 2013 we bought a couple of recreational UAVs, just to see what they could do. As soon as we began flying them we realized that, when combined with a variety of sensors including the latest remote sensing technology, UAVs could be incredibly useful. They could acquire absolutely current information in a variety of data formats – all at a reasonable price. You couldn’t ask for anything better.

In the fall of 2015 we invested in a microdrones md4-1000 multi-rotor UAV, and early this year in a PrecisionHawk Lancaster fixed-wing UAV. Each UAV uses a MicaSense RedEdge 3 multispectral camera. Both are state-of-the-art pieces of high technology with sophisticated navigation and autopilots and the ability to carry a useful remote sensing payload.

What kind of UAV might best suit your surveying needs? The multi-rotor’s manoeuvrability and vertical takeoff/landing ability make it ideally suited for confined areas where the landing area is small and/or uneven, and built-up areas where adjacent landowners might have privacy concerns. It’s plenty fast and efficient, though. We’ve done 25-acre surveys within an hour, and have used the multi-rotor vehicle on surveys of up to 300 acres that we’ve finished within 5 hours.

The “Lanc” needs a bit of room to roam – although with a payload of just 1.15 kg, it’s a far cry from the four-engine Second World War-era bomber of the same name. It’s an impressive piece of machinery. Not only does its internal software create and fly its own flight plan according to an uploaded file of way points, but its onboard processor and sensors calculate wind speed and direction and adjust the flight plan in mid-flight for surveying passes that are appropriate for the wind direction.

The Lancaster’s flight patterns are carefully planned to avoid encroaching on adjoining landowners, beginning each survey by flying the survey area’s perimeter and then surveying the interior through length-wise passes. With its ability to easily cover 1,000 acres in a day, the fixed-wing UAV is great for large surveys in open areas.

For all the Lanc’s automation, landing it is a pilot-assist operation – and that’s where science and technology need good old human skill and judgment. Landing smoothly is a real art – and it’s very unforgiving of failure. You sure wouldn’t want to plough it into a row of vines, a fence or a trellis.

That’s why we recommend using a multi-rotor UAV for surveying vineyards and any other confined, contained, built-up or rugged areas – like vineyards in B.C.’s Okanagan.

We love them both, and we feel that no serious provider of UAS surveys should operate without both options. We’re even buying a second, smaller multi-rotor UAV to use on smaller surveys and as a back-up unit to fail-safe our field operations.

– Garvin Geck