Tech Talk: The Integration of Drone and Geospatial Technologies
The last few years have seen tremendous growth of drone-based mapping, and this is because of the advantage of obtaining high-quality and measurable data sets much safer and faster than manual surveys and cost-effective compared to aerial surveys.
Drones have emerged as one of the most inventive tools in the Geospatial sector and have already proved transformative for a wide range of applications. From land administration to precision agriculture, disaster monitoring and management, to construction progress monitoring, drones have emerged as a powerful resource when fed into GIS.
The enthusiastic adoption of drone technology by Government agencies is another exciting development. Drone use in India has also been deregulated to a great extent with the repeal of the regressive Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Rules by the Ministry of Civil Aviation, Government of India, and the official notification for the new Drone Rules 2021. The reformed legislation focuses on simplifying procedures and reducing compliance burdens on operating a drone in India.
The Drone-Geospatial Combine for Transformative Applications
The rise and indigeneity of drone technology in India is making it accessible to a wide range of industries. Drones have been extensively used, for instance, for implementing schemes like SVAMITVA, Namami Gange, and the National Hydrology Project, among others.
The following are some of the major application areas for the integration of drones and geospatial technologies:
The agriculture sector is witnessing massive disruption due to the integration of drone and geospatial technologies. Together, they are boosting precision farming techniques to reduce costs, increase yield, and augment returns on investments.
Drones enable farmers to consistently monitor crop and livestock conditions aerially, detecting abnormalities that would not be obvious during ground-level spot checks. Drones can traverse hundreds of thousands of acres in a single day, recording high-quality, multi-sensor imagery to track crop advancement, regulate nutrient input, and make planting/replanting decisions with ease.
Since they are cost-effective and easy to operate, the frequency of such inspections can be increased significantly to identify, track, and tackle problem areas before they become more complicated.
Case in Point: Farmers in Andhra Pradesh are using drones for better irrigation management and the spraying of pesticides. While it takes 1-2 days to spray pesticide on 10 acres of land using traditional methods, the time taken is reduced to just 1 hour (@6-10 minutes per acre) using drone technology in the state, saving around 25% of pesticide and 95% of water, besides costs, time and energy.
Construction and Infrastructure
Where traditional surveying tools such as total stations can prove costly and time-consuming for mapping entire infrastructures, or inefficient for measuring complex project terrains, drones can easily fly around existing structures and hazardous locations. This enables mapping of inaccessible and high-risk areas with greater ease and accuracy. Innovative combinations such as drone-based LiDAR are helping construction managers create accurate elevation models and detailed 3D models for precise planning.
Case in Point: The National Highways Authority of India is using drones to monitor assets and construction progress. The drone-captured data is interlaced with timestamps, geographic coordinates, structural information, and dynamic chainage and monitored at monthly intervals to check their alignment with various NHAI Guidelines.
UAVs support public safety and emergency response management in a number of ways, providing near-real-time information to identify and report ground scenarios for faster decisions. They help in remote assessment and survey of disaster-inflicted zones efficiently, capturing high-resolution, real-time images of areas, so that first responders need not be put in harm’s way. Data captured from drones can be mapped onto 3D environments to enhance clarity of location and scenarios.
The Drone-LiDAR combination is helping improve risk assessment for flood-prone areas and vegetation density study in drought-affected areas for better emergency management. Unconventional use cases are also on the rise, such as the use of drones for medical and emergency deliveries in difficult-to-reach areas, spraying water or extinguishers to curb fires, and providing immediate first aid.
Case in Point: The Indian Railways’ South Western Railway (SWR) zone conducted aerial assessments of the Western Ghats section between Castle Rock and Kulem in Karnataka’s Uttar Kannada district to identify disaster-prone sites in the area. In-person inspections were also performed to check the safety of the tracks. Upon discovery of a vulnerable area, a team of engineers, technicians, and trackmen was sent to perform corrective measures to avoid the railway track from being damaged or blocked.
Drone surveys are being carried out to verify tree plantation drives, check deforestation, and track tough-to-navigate hilly or dense forests for creating land cover maps, monitoring poaching, and monitoring & analysis of forest fires. Drones are also being used to remotely monitor species populations and habitats while maintaining the sanctity of their natural environment.
Providing a direct aerial view of animals that are timid and difficult to spot, drones prove useful for tracking the rarest of animal populations. Besides, thermal imaging with drones delivers photographs even after sunset, capable of recording nighttime events. Drones can also be used for management, technical services, eco-tourism marketing, law enforcement, anti-poaching, and search-and-rescue operations.
Case in Point: Night vision drones are helping monitor movements of tigers at the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh using thermal and IR drone imaging. Drones are also being used at PTR for law enforcement in the sanctuary, rescue of wildlife, wildfires and firefighting, and curbing human-animal conflict. Future use cases around ecotourism, monitoring invasive plant species, biodiversity documentation, and other recreational and educational purposes have also been planned.
Drones enable faster, easier, and more accurate data collection for preparing cadastral maps even in complicated, inaccessible landscapes. This can help update land-related information of areas where records are poor, old, or non-existent. Such data can be further used to develop high-resolution orthomosaics and detailed 3D models for advanced land management and planning and updated at regular intervals without the hassles of manual involvement. Surveyors can also extract features such as signs, curbs, road markers, fire hydrants, drains, and so on, from the drone-captured aerial imagery for detailed assessments.
Case in Point: For the Ministry of Panchayati Raj’s SVAMITVA (Survey of Villages Abadi & Mapping with Improvised Technology in Village Areas) scheme, drones were used to survey and map villages so that a comprehensive property validation solution could be developed in rural India. Drone-led survey of abadi or residential areas has already been completed in over 6 lakh villages of the country for demarcating land plots and providing “record of rights” to property owners. This will enable them to finally use their property as a financial asset for procuring loans and other financial benefits – a basic need that had been unavailable to them so far.
The partnership between drone and geospatial technologies is set to significantly enhance the availability and quality of location data in the near future. Further developments and integrations with fields like AI, IoT, and 5G will only accelerate the innovation process and development of mission-critical services and decision making processes.
A key challenge, however, is the lack of an integrated strategy for Drone-Based Geospatial Solutions. Data capturing, processing, and application development, along with their specific challenges, continue to be viewed and implemented separately. This is hindering the realization of this technology’s full potential. The need of the hour is a consolidated strategy moving forward on how to best integrate these aspects with the broader Geospatial ecosystem.