Land Surveying With Drones – An Expert Discussion (Part 1)


In this Waypoint exclusive, four experienced geospatial professionals share their experiences of surveying with drones, covering: why they first considered adopting drone (or UAV/UAS) technology, what questions and concerns they had prior to buying, and what these unmanned aircraft have brought to their businesses. (Part 1 of a two-part conversation. Read Part 2 here.)

The land surveyors we spoke with boast several years and hundreds of flight hours of survey drone experience. They include:

Hi folks. To start, please tell us a little about your background and experience, including what type of surveying projects you typically work on.

Williams: I’m a registered land surveyor with 25 years’ experience in land surveying, engineering surveying and spatial data, specialising in land development and construction. I am currently also a land surveying representative (ACT) for the Surveying & Spatial Sciences Institute.

Kohlman: My personal experience of surveying with drones has been on the legal surveying side; roads, subdivisions etc. On the whole, Meridian Surveys is a well-rounded surveying company with experience in all aspects of oil and gas, layout, and we specialise in pipeline surveys.

McMahon: I am a professional engineer and Alberta land surveyor. We started out at Measurement Sciences focused on precision and engineering surveys, monitoring structures for deformation and aligning industrial machines and equipment for physics experiments. Over the years we have expanded into legal land surveying, bathymetric surveying, aggregate volumes, and oil and gas surveying. The bulk of my time now is split between legal subdivision for multi-phase subdivisions and deformation monitoring.

Kerr: I have 42 years’ experience as a professional Ontario, Alberta, and Canada lands surveyor. My work has included working for the Canadian government on heritage sites in Ottawa, working on land development and natural resource projects, and railways, and I operated my own private surveying practice in Ontario for 23 years. During the past 10 years, I have worked as a senior project manager with McIntosh Perry Surveying Inc., an engineering and surveying company based in Ottawa, Canada. McIntosh Perry’s work is split evenly between legal (cadastral) surveying and topographic surveying for projects as diverse as highway and bridge reconstruction, large scale site servicing designs, and solar and wind turbine power generation projects.

Rachel Kohlman of Meridian Surveys in launch mode.

What convinced you to start to implement this technology and start surveying with drones?

Kohlman: We saw this new product at the SLS AGM in 2014 and it caught our eye and imagination. We could tell that this was going to be a tool that would become necessary for land surveying in the future and we couldn’t wait to get in on this new technology.

Kerr: Using survey UAVs became an option for our business when it became clear we required both faster turnaround times and more detailed modelling of site topography on many projects. UAV mapping offers quicker, more complete mapping than ground survey methods in many cases, so that problem areas can be identified and addressed.

It became clear we required both faster turnaround times and more detailed modelling of site topography on many projects

Williams: I have always loved advances in high technology and this was a good addition to my land development business. Plus, I love new toys and being one of the first to use them!

What are the key benefits that survey drones bring to your company?

Kohlman: Using a survey UAS can be a real time saver for a lot of jobs and it enables us to get a very complete set of data, something that a crew in the field would have a hard time doing in a timely fashion. At times it can also really impact on safety. Instead of sending our personnel into a situation with steep grades or equipment that could potentially be hazardous we are able to avoid this by remotely collecting this data.

Williams: Drones have enabled us to create a new branch of our business, offering clients a very good product at cost-effective rates in comparison to conventional methods.

McMahon: We are able to generate our own current high-resolution imagery for areas where none is available. We are also able to use drones to produce quality surface models with very dense sampling.

Kerr: UAVs provide an affordable alternative to field survey personnel, allowing us to complete projects at a lower cost and with fewer staff, while acquiring data that is more complete over the majority of a site, and allowing the onsite staff to focus on specific areas which may require on-the-ground detail acquisition.

Drones have enabled us to create a new branch of our business, offering clients a very good product at cost-effective rates in comparison to conventional methods

A section of a dam site surveyed by Ryan McMahon of Measurement Sciences.

What were any key questions or concerns you had about adopting drone technology and how did these play out in practice?

Kerr: Our chief question about surveying with drones was the level of accuracy possible, in comparison with what we were used to achieving using ground survey methods. We were also concerned with the reliability and stability of the aerial platform, and whether it would be possible to rely on mapping data points generated in forested areas or in open fields with crop or crop stubble present.

Our chief question about survyeing with drones was the level of accuracy possible, in comparison with what we were used to achieving using ground survey methods

Kohlman: Some of the things that we were concerned about were applicable uses, the paperwork involved with regulations, and getting clients on board and excited about this new product.

Williams: We were concerned about the ease of flying such systems and the learning curve involved, but this was very quick and we’re now extremely confident flying our UAVs. Our final questions concerned the cost and potential ROI, but we found that an eBee mapping drone pays for itself on a 1:3 ratio; we’re currently earning three to four times per month the cost of our drone’s leasing and insurance, so not taking into account any extra growth we’ll pay it off in less than 18 months.

What specific UAVs do you use and for what types of projects?

McMahon: We have three senseFly eBees that we use for the bulk of our work. These provide aerial imagery to complement site surveys as well as for DSMs on aggregate volume surveys. They’ve also been used to confirm natural boundaries. We also had an Aeryon Scout for four years, which was used for closer range imagery and smaller applications where the fixed-wing drone was not practical. We have a senseFly albris on order now too.

We also have multiple quadrotors by 3DR that we use for site images and short information videos. We have mosaic’d images from these units but it is not our first option for ortho-rectified imaging.

Kohlman: Currently our drones are another tool that we have available to offer—they work for some projects and for others they aren’t the right fit. We currently us a Draganfly X4-P and two senseFly eBees. The two drones are very different types of equipment and are better utilised for certain things: the Draganfly has been used for some smaller topographical jobs, as well as inspections, whereas the eBee has been used for jobs where we need topographical information on a larger scale.

Surveying with Drones Canberra Aboretum
An eBee-captured photo of Canberra’s arboretum (Peter Williams).

Williams: We use a senseFly eBee RTK drone for large-scale mapping and 3D modelling of mines and construction sites, along with providing high-definition orthophotos. We also use a DJI Phantom with a 5.2mm lens on a GoPro for aerial photos of construction sites.

Kerr: We’ve currently only used the eBee flying wing. We have used it on projects where there is a mix of open and forested areas. Depending on the season, in leaf and snow-free conditions, for example, we have had excellent results in the open areas and predictably poorer results in forests, where we typically expect to supplement or replace the UAV data with ground-measured data.

We have done a relatively small number of projects to date, but we are continually looking for others on which to use the UAV. So far, we have used the UAV primarily for land development projects, as we’ve found we can achieve mapping accuracies sufficient for engineering predesign work in the preparation of preliminary servicing plans. Under ideal conditions, we have achieved vertical accuracies of better than 10 cm.

Read Part 2 of Land Surveying With Drones

Learn more about the potential of surveying drones 

Explore drone survey case studies


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Comments (33)

Great to see hear real life examples how drones are assisting in land surveying and in many other sectors.

[…] Four experienced land surveyors share their experiences of using professional drones in their work, including: why they first considered adopting drone (or UAV/UAS) technology, what questions and concerns they had prior to buying, and what unmanned aircraft have brought to their businesses. (Part one of a two-part conversation.)  […]

I returned this week from the Consumer Electronics Show 2016 (CES16) in Las Vegas. Certainly Parrot (Sensefly / eBee) and DJI are the leaders of the UAV pack with a dozen more looking to catch up. The applications seem endless (i.e. precise and prescriptive agriculture, 3D indoor mapping) and leaps in technology with inexpensive 360 cameras transmitting in 4K real time, virtual reality, light weight (but power hungry) Lidar and cloud based platforms for processing and analysis.
As a Professional Land Surveyor, I have dealt with geospatial data for 20 years, however, in the past year, it has become very apparent that UAV’s, augmented with other point cloud technologies, are revolutionizing the survey/geomatics sector.

From what I understand, land surveying is very hard and takes a lot of practice and skill to be good at. With that being the case, I would imagine that tools like drones only make that job easier. It’s cool to see that we are using modern technology to help out with every day jobs like this.

With the cameras that can be used on drones now, it will help a lot in surveying large areas. I would love to learn more about this, and see if it is something that can be useful in my situation. Hopefully this is something that will continue to get better with better quality.

Technology like drone is playing very important role in every industry today. It can help people to save time and money. Thanks for sharing!

I’ve been learning about UAS lately, and was wondering what fields of work they could be used in. This was an interesting and informative read. I like how drones offer a safe way for land surveyors to gather the information they need. It also sounds like a great way to save time and money. Is there any training you can take to learn to fly drones, or is it all trial and error? Thanks for the information!

senseFly drones are typically supplied with full training. Although in truth they are very simple to fly. See this video guide:

Skerry N Palanga

This is great input by land surveyors and the experiences in using drone as a tool for surveys as better alternative to the conventional ways of detail and topographic practices. I am strongly considering the application of this new technology.

i dont know if it apply for X,Y,Z but if it does it could be really helpful, u know holding the prism or gps in ur hand and walk around collecting points is so boring and sometimes i feel lazy to do that :/

are there surveying companies in PNG already using this UAVs? we need this for ILG registration.

[…] Waypoint,  Rachel Kohlman, SLS, P. Surv and Project Manager at Meridian Surveys (Alta) Ltd. says a UAS […]

Excellent post! I own engineering firm in Serbia Great idea with the drone that I can apply in my company. All praise for an excellent text.

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[…] Find More Informations here: […]

I appreciate you helping me learn more about land surveying with the aid of drones. As far as I know, land surveying is a difficult task and requires accuracy. So, I guess if the land surveyors will be using drones, it will not only lessen their workload but will absolutely provide an accurate measurement.

Agreed! That line is more about explaining to someone who has no experience in the survey space why they might need to rethink their strategy if all they’re able to offer potential clients is the ability to capture data from the air.

I like how Kerr said that using drones for topographic surveying allows for quicker and more complete mapping. Drones are being used for more and more things these days, but I didn’t think they’d be high-tech enough to handle 3D topographic mapping. It’s interesting to learn how drones are being implemented in the land surveying business, so thanks for sharing!

It’s really cool to see how drones are being adapted to make jobs like this easier. My grandpa had to have someone come out and survey his land recently and they also had a drone with them. The guy said it definitely made his job easier!

It’s cool to learn more about land surveys done with drones. I love how you said that it’s a cost-effective method to give great results. Seeing the land from a drone’s perspective would be really cool and helpful, I would think.

thanks for a cool article about drones

It’s going to be finish of mine day, however before finish I am reading this impressive post to improve my know-how.

This type of technology is very popular now a day’s.Drastically used of in such as agriculture sector and other land fields.

I appreciate that you explained how drones can produce surface models with specific sampling. My brother is a civil engineer for the city and he needs a way to map out a section of the downtown area. I’ll be sure to share this with him so he can find a good drone mapping service to help him out.

thanks and nice to see this innovative land surveying tips

thanks and it was great to see thee informatic updates about drones

Much appreciated for such amazing information.

Moving personality of expression. Keep it up!

I like how you mentioned that using drones can prevent workers from having to deal with steep land and potentially getting into hazardous situations. My husband and I are thinking about buying a large plot of land in the mountains, but since some of it is quite overgrown, it would be difficult to survey in a traditional way. Drone surveying would be a great alternative for this.

Great to see hear real life examples how drones are assisting in land surveying and in many other sectors.

It’s interesting that aerial imagery gets complete data efficiently. My uncle needs to map out his land soon to get more data about the soil. I’ll be sure to share this with him so he can know who to hire for a mapping job.

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