Make no mistake about it. Drones, also known as UAVs or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, are a troublesome technology that can give geospatial professionals a headache not just in the US, but in other countries around the world as well. However, though the mainstream media has rendered UAVs in a bad light, there are some benefits to flying UAVs in the air, like mapping out territories and areas that would usually take weeks and months to do. But the question remains, is drone use legal?
Legal in Switzerland
Drones are reportedly legal in Switzerland even if they’re used without a license. Most UAVs there weight about less than 30 kg or about 66 lbs and were instrumental in accurately mapping out Matterhorn Mountain which measures 4,478 meters high and sprawled out on 2,800 hectares. That would have taken weeks or months if done manually, but with UAVs, everything was finished in 5 hours and 40 minutes of flying time.
In Swiss law, what’s important is that drones or UAVs are flown while their operators or ground pilots maintain a line of sight or have “direct eye contact” with them. Simply put, the operator must remain seeing the robotic bird with his bare eyes. This limits the distance with which UAVs can be used. Thus, in case something untoward happens, the operator is within easy access and someone can immediately be held responsible.
UAV Mapping Power
In just less than a week, the whole Matterhorn Mountain was accurately photographed with a resolution of 20 cm, and to think that the setting was inside the rugged Swiss Alps. And it’s not just any kind of mapping; it’s 3D mapping. Observers say mapping using UAVs is more economical and efficient compared to traditional airborne lidar and photogrammetry. It may have taken 11 flights to finish everything, but fuel usage of this small flying robot is minimal compared to flying a manned plane.
UAVs in the US
Experts on UVS or Unmanned Vehicle Systems working for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems, or AUVSI, estimate that the use of UVS in some industries in the US would create at least 70,000 new jobs. That’s some estimated $13.6 billion impact on the economy. And the figures could easily increase by the year 2025.
What sectors can be benefited by the use of UAVs? There is the agriculture, which experts say could benefit the most. There is also the environmental sector, the disaster management, gas and oil exploration, power line surveys, and other mapping services, to name a few.
Again, money figures and benefits aside, the question remains—are drones legal in the US? Some sectors insist that whatever benefits UAVs may have, they are illegal as long as no special permit coming from the US Federal Aviation Administration or FAA is secured for their operation.