Unlicensed UAV services threaten survey profession

March 2, 2016  - By
Image: GPS World


Unless one has lived under a rock for the past few years, it is hard to miss the influx of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), otherwise known as drones. Once considered expensive toys for hobbyists, these vehicles have become the hottest ticket in town for gathering aerial photography and video with professionals and amateurs alike.

Miniaturization of cameras, batteries and GPS receivers has allowed these former toys to become important tools for many different users. Like so many other pieces of equipment that have become more affordable to the general public, it still requires trained and licensed experts to produce data and deliverables from the UAV and applicable software. The trouble with all this rapid growth in technology is finding truly qualified users who understand that UAVs are just another tool to compete a task and not a replacement for the trained and licensed professional.

Surveyors are facing this challenge every day as technology races ahead. The market for UAVs in the surveying environment seems to have blossomed along with the worldwide boom. Services utilizing UAVs by the unlicensed and non-professional vendor is becoming the largest threat to the surveying profession. Firms advertising “eliminate expensive survey crews” are becoming more visible in print publications and on the Internet as cheaper alternatives to the licensed professional surveyor.

To fully understand the hazard these individuals and firms are presenting to the public, we shall first look at the laws that govern the surveying profession. For example, from my home state is an excerpt of Illinois Professional Land Surveyor Act of 1989 (225 ILCS 330/) referring to measurements to be performed by the professional land surveyor (see excerpt at the end of this column.)

This act defines the tasks that are to be undertaken by the licensed surveyor. Like most professions, the surveyor is required to obtain a bachelor’s degree with a specific number of surveying classes along with four years of responsible charge of surveying duties. Illinois State Statutes also declare that those who offer these services without the proper licensing or training can be charged with Class A misdemeanor for a first offense, and guilty of a Class 4 felony for a second or subsequent offenses.

Part of being a professional surveyor is also utilizing the proper tools of the trade. For the past 20 years, GPS has become the single greatest asset to the surveyor. It has allowed many tasks to be completed in greatly reduced time with more accurate results. The surveyor now has several different GPS tools to choose from, depending on the task. In my last column, “Data is the crop — GNSS used by surveyors and farmers,” I wrote of the varying levels of GPS receivers used by land surveyors and mappers for different types of data collection. Here is a brief review:

Mapping Grade GPS (>= 3 meters)
This handheld unit is primarily used for mapping utilities and improvements that don’t require high accuracy.

Differential GPS (<= 1 meter)
These systems are used by hydrographic surveyors for use in mapping lake and river bottoms as well as surveyors working in open pit mines producing existing condition maps and volumetric surveys.

Real time kinematic (RTK) (<= 2.5 centimeters)
RTK systems range from base station/rover/radio combination to virtual reference systems (also known as “real time networks” or RTN) over cellular networks. These systems are prevalent with today’s surveyor as standard measuring equipment.

While using any of these GPS types, surveyors have procedures for measuring and checking their results in a precise and particular manner. Most surveyors primarily use RTK or RTN-based systems for all of their work and require continuous data verification throughout the collection process. Control points and monuments are utilized for quality checks and verification in order to assure the work being performed meets the required accuracy standards.

The integrity of the data is closely guarded by the surveyor as their duty to performing the job correctly and efficiently. These policies and procedures are also paramount to the work being performed remotely by a UAV under the direction of a surveyor, so the service being provided is professional.

The consumer (and small business) side of the UAV industry, however, is much different. The costs vary from $100 and up, depending on rotors, batteries and camera capability. One of the main advances has been the implementation of GPS receivers but with much lower accurate positional information.

Like the dashboard GPS screens in cars and now GPS on every smartphone, John Q. Public assumes that the geographic positions provided by the UAV receivers are very accurate and have little to no error. On the contrary, most GPS receivers in these units provide autonomous positions with horizontal accuracies in the 2-5 meter range (at best) and can follow a preset flight path created on a smartphone or tablet.

Also, these UAVs and software have also opened the door to new opportunities for entrepreneurs everywhere. The high-definition cameras with capabilities including 4K video and 15-20 megapixel images allows the tech-savvy user to fly and collect aerial photography and video that rivals companies with a fleet of aircraft and expensive cameras. These images are used with software that stitches multiple shots together based upon GPS location and common elements in each image to create 3D models for terrain analyzation. No “on the ground” data verification or survey measurements are utilized to confirm the image’s integrity or scale.

Many vendors are also offering verification of quantities in gravel pits and mining operations utilizing the volume calculation modules within the software. These images may be a pretty picture but for surveying purposes, they don’t pass the sufficient accuracy tests.

In contrast, survey-specific UAVs and software will cost $25,000 and up, but are designed to provide the necessary accuracy required to perform a professional surveying task. Flight planning with state plane coordinate systems are most common, as these systems directly relate to the surveys being performed in conjunction with the aerial flights. Panel points are set for identification within the images to verify known distances and accuracy checks.

Volume quantities can also calculate with greater accuracy based upon these methods and procedures. Surveyors are also using the technology to perform ongoing as-built conditions in order to provide construction sites progress reports of installation of improvements. All of these tasks are possible with the higher accuracy capability of the survey-grade UAV under the direction and guidance of the professional surveyor.

The surveyor, with the professional knowledge of geographical and state plane coordinates, also understands the boundaries of “no fly zones” and the use of geofencing by the U.S. government and the UAV manufacturers. As these zones become more prevalent, knowing how to honor and adapt to them is already a staple in the surveyor’s tool bag.

The State of Illinois is currently drafting rules for UAV operation that will coincide with the proposed rules due from the FAA in June 2016. While most concern from the public is in regard to privacy and public safety, I am concerned as a professional surveyor that the current trend of use of UAVs by unlicensed professionals for surveying and engineering services will harm the public as much as the other issues combined. Engineering designs that are based upon data collected by unlicensed professionals should not be accepted by governing bodies in an effort to protect the public. Licensed surveyors, utilizing the proper tools (including survey grade GPS and UAVs), provide the accurate data for these designs.

Technology has made the UAV an exciting toy for most and a new tool for some industries, including surveying. Like any tool, proper use and instruction is necessary for the safety of the operator and the public. The UAV does not make its owner a surveyor, just as buying a pipewrench doesn’t make its user a plumber.

For more information on UAV use and procedures, go to Know Before You Fly.

Excerpt of Illinois Professional Land Surveyor Act of 1989

(225 ILCS 330/5) (from Ch. 111, par. 3255)
(Section scheduled to be repealed on January 1, 2020)

Sec. 5. Practice of land surveying defined. Any person who practices in Illinois as a professional land surveyor who renders, offers to render, or holds himself or herself out as able to render, or perform any service, the adequate performance of which involves the special knowledge of the art and application of the principles of the accurate and precise measurement of length, angle, elevation or volume, mathematics, the related physical and applied sciences, and the relevant requirements of law, all of which are acquired by education, training, experience, and examination. Any one or combination of the following practices constitutes the practice of land surveying:

(a) Establishing or reestablishing, locating, defining, and making or monumenting land boundaries or title or real property lines and the platting of lands and subdivisions;

(b) Establishing the area or volume of any portion of the earth’s surface, subsurface, or airspace with respect to boundary lines, determining the configuration or contours of any portion of the earth’s surface, subsurface, or airspace or the location of fixed objects thereon, except as performed by photogrammetric methods or except when the level of accuracy required is less than the level of accuracy required by the National Society of Professional Surveyors Model Standards and Practice;

(c) Preparing descriptions for the determination of title or real property rights to any portion or volume of the earth’s surface, subsurface, or airspace involving the lengths and direction of boundary lines, areas, parts of platted parcels or the contours of the earth’s surface, subsurface, or airspace;

(d) Labeling, designating, naming, or otherwise identifying legal lines or land title lines of the United States Rectangular System or any subdivision thereof on any plat, map, exhibit, photograph, photographic composite, or mosaic or photogrammetric map of any portion of the earth’s surface for the purpose of recording the same in the Office of Recorder in any county

This article is tagged with , , and posted in Opinions, Survey, UAV/UGV

About the Author: Tim Burch

Tim Burch, GPS World’s co-contributing editor for survey, is executive director of the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS) and director of Surveying at SPACECO Inc. in Rosemont, Illinois. He has been working as a professional land surveyor since 1985.

3 Comments on "Unlicensed UAV services threaten survey profession"

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  1. Craig Roberts says:

    Thanks for the article Tim. Very timely. I was a little confused by the last part dealing with the Land Surveyor Act in Illinois where it stated: (Section scheduled to be repealed on January 1, 2020) and then listed the relevant section 5 (parts a-d). Are you saying this section will be excised from the new Act or re-written and modernised (although it seems pretty good to me as it stands). We have similar pressures here in Australia. Indeed it is the role of the professional surveyor to educate their clients and the wider community. We keep trying. Thanks for the article.

    • Tim Burch says:

      Craig –

      Thanks for the feedback; it’s great to know the reach of the Internet. Our current administrative rules expire in 2020 so legislation is required to update them beforehand. Surveyors in Illinois are looking at how technology is expanding to infringe on our duties and responsibility to the public in order to update those standards appropriately.

      Bottom line is our continuing education process for the public and clients of what constitutes professional services and what one should expect when hiring a surveyor. I’m not trying to start an argument for those who want to implement new technology in our profession; it’s about making sure the technology is used an appropriate tool to provide better service and information for the client.

      Please keep trying! I love to hear about passionate surveyors and knowing you are keeping an eye on the future helps.

      Have a great day,


      Timothy W. Burch, PLS
      NSPS Board of Directors – Secretary

  2. Dan says:

    Doesn’t part b above already allow it? Aside from the minor FAA thing..? I do understand the concern and very timely as I try to keep tabs it’s effect in our profession