Drones in orienteering mapping?
This is not to claim that making orienteering maps is boring, as one dictionary suggests that a drone is “A person who does tedious or menial work; a drudge” ….. on the contrary, anyone who knows me will know that I find the work stimulating and rewarding, and certainly not menial. Indeed making orienteering maps is one of my passions in life, and another (there are more!) is the theory of flight … I had a fairly long career in aviation as a military test pilot (well after Chick Yeager’s era) and latterly as an airline bus driver … so the combination of mapping and flying is of great interest, especially as old age creeps up on me. Those who know me well will have heard me say that my plan is to continue mapping in my solar powered wheel chair (well, I do live in the sunshine state), driving sedately along tracks while my drone does all the hard work above : )
There is no doubt that the above scenario will be possible in the very near future. My good friend Mikko Salonen (who is former chairman of the IOF foot-o committee, now a vice president) works on drone (a.k.a. Unmanned Aerial Vehicle or UAV) technology in mapping for a GIS company in Finland. He tells me the capability is almost there already, but for us underpaid drones the cost is prohibitive at the moment. I see Dominos pizza chain is just about to launch drone delivery to the door in New Zealand …. should be interesting to hear how that pans out : ) [ouch! Ed.]
So do drones have a future in orienteering mapping?
Without going into all the details, drones will have the capability to fly “autonomously” wherever you want them to go. If you don’t have a commercial licence to operate a drone, they need to remain “in sight” which may be a problem for bush maps but not for most park maps/school maps etc. On board the drone you can have everything you need for mapping: a GPS (although down under it’s not as accurate as in Europe etc), a high resolution camera, laser sensors, etc. There is already software to analyse the data and produce high quality LiDAR data.
How long will it be before this technology is available to us minions down under? Apart from price, I think there are a few more hurdles to be overcome before we can launch these devices into the sky to make maps for us. The first is safety. The aviation regulators in Australia are not as enlightened (or foolhardy) as their Kiwi counterparts, but have just launched some new rules for drone use. They seem to allow fairly relaxed “amateur” use. But I used to work for CASA and I know there are a few grey areas which could catch us out. One such area is safety …. even if you abide by the rules, the onus is still on the operator to do their own risk assessment and take steps to avoid anything going wrong. And most low cost drones certainly do go wrong … when the battery dies or it’s attacked by a disgruntled bird, they don’t gracefully glide to the ground like a plane … they plummet with enough energy to do serious damage to unprotected humans.
Another grey area is the definition of “commercial” use … which they say does not necessarily mean “for profit” … making maps for a third party may well qualify as commercial use and, if so, the rules are much tougher. So, I’m not in a hurry to buy a drone and try it out … yet.
Drone aids school orienteering map
I have already tried to use a drone to help make a map. One of my local schools had just obtained a drone (apparently it is now in the curriculum to let kids program them and see what they can do) so I asked the teacher to send me some photos from his drone flights.
We are not allowed to fly drones over the top of the school (where it could crash) but it is possible to take photos from adjacent playing fields etc (as long as they aren’t full of kids). From the low altitudes allowed, we got several excellent quality “oblique” photos of the school buildings. Without sophisticated software to “rubberise” (to use an OCAD term) the imagery it is not yet possible to use as a background map, but I found it extremely useful to complement the usual satellite or standard “aerial photography” we use for making base maps.
That latter aerial imagery only shows roof lines and ground detail that is often obscured by trees and shadows. However, the oblique drone photography was able to provide views “under” the roof lines and trees, enabling me to produce an almost perfect base map with much more detail than the overhead imagery. Have a look at the above photo (drone from north, looking south) and you should see what I mean … it’s possible to see a lot more detail, especially “under” the roof lines.
Next era of orienteering mapping
In conclusion, drones will herald a new era in orienteering mapping but it’s not for the faint of heart or shallow of pocket just yet … in the meantime try to get someone else to provide photos to make your life easier : )
Any feedback and further information most welcome … before I decide which wheelchair to buy!