Altavian Blog

The Fallacy of a "One-Button" Survey


There’s a lot of hype surrounding drones in surveying and mapping. The potential is evident, but the hype is unchecked. Too often, drone capabilities are portrayed as quick, easy “one-button” survey solutions for collecting data. This fails to represent how drones in surveying can truly generate value for surveyors.

Drones, like total station and GNSS receivers, are another tool, enabling professionals to get the job done. They certainly won’t replace experienced surveyors and photogrammetrists when the customer is counting on reliable and accurate geospatial data products. Instead, drones promise to augment surveyors’ tool kits with an efficient, cost-effective, and re-deployable data collection tool capable of capturing many hundreds of millions of measurements of an area, where once a day’s work yielded perhaps a few hundred. The professional’s task is to distill information from the data drones so easily gather.

Where the Hype Goes Wrong

When a “one-button” survey is presented, it is implied that drone data is better than what is obtained from traditional geospatial sources. But, data for data’s sake isn’t the goal of surveying. Providing useful information based on accurate data is the goal. A licensed, professional surveyor cannot be automated in a drone. Accurate surveys require careful planning, execution, and quality checks. Surveyors and photogrammetrists know that a survey is designed just as surely as a bridge or a road is designed. In execution alone, whether it’s setting ground control points, extracting and classifying local features, or going back to edit data during processing to provide the information the customer wants, the job of a surveyor goes considerably beyond the idea of unboxing a drone somewhere and letting automation take care of the rest.

“A survey is designed just as surely as a bridge or a road is designed.”

The production of deliverables doesn’t always end at an orthomosaic or a vanilla DEM. You will be called upon to provide contours, building footprints, and perhaps some classified terrain models. Your customer may not be satisfied with the ragged building edges automatically produced in the ortho derived from a dense point cloud. Perhaps, if you work with LiDAR data or large-format aerial imagery regularly, you already know what to do with that point cloud or those stereo image pairs. In short, there are still too many variables involved in most surveying jobs to fully automate the entire process and expect perfect results every time. There are too many and diverse data products that specialized surveying and mapping firms provide for a “one-button” survey to work. There’s always tremendous enthusiasm for the next big thing. But, that enthusiasm shouldn’t obscure where and how drones in surveying can actually create value for firms.

How Drones in Surveying Actually Create Value

Drones impact surveying and mapping firms’ bottom lines both in how data is collected and what kind of products are derivable from it. Drones can survey an area more efficiently than survey crews or at far less expense than a manned flight. That’s VALUE. A single fixed-wing drone can provide accurate survey data in a matter of hours. It isn’t even necessary to imagine a scenario in which that same data collection would require a three-man surveying crew more than a couple weeks to cover if you’ve had the bad luck to be on that crew. One of the bigger frustrations of surveying is the inevitable error made in the field that can’t be worked around at the office. With drones, it can be much less of a hassle to redeploy to a site rapidly than it might be using other methods. This is real-world value for geospatial firms, without implementing completely new workflows.

“We should think of drones as what they are rather than what they are not: a tool—not an entire workflow.”

We should think of drones as what they are rather than what they are not: a tool—not an entire workflow. Any tool that you use as a professional will have a learning curve; you need to find its role in your enterprise. For example, the commercial drone industry is rapidly advancing its ability to provide polished data products. It’s now possible to generate incredibly dense 3D point clouds—in themselves, normally intermediate data products—which then are used to generate equally detailed terrain models. Therefore we should portray drones as augmenting the surveyor’s capability in the 21st Century rather than rendering the profession unnecessary as a “one-button” survey. A drone’s impact boils down to how the professional uses them—not as a one-size-fits-all surveying solution. Once the drone lands, drone data is just data. On a good day, it will be data you didn’t have to haul a tripod and a total station and a rod and stakes all day, in the heat or the cold, to get.

The Bottom Line

As a drone manufacturer, we firmly believe that better data creates better businesses and ultimately, a better world. We don’t want drones to be portrayed as a quick fix for surveying data. We believe drones are a valuable tool for the surveyor’s tool belt. Drones should be discussed in terms of engineering, real capabilities, and bottom line value—not sensational tech jargon.

Drones aren’t intended to be one-button miracles, at least not for serious businesses. For those who are serious about quality data collection and precise surveying output, drones can help you get there faster if you exploit their particular advantages, but they will always work best together with the experience and expertise of the surveying professional.

Regardless of hype, we’ll really know drones have lived up to their promise when drones in surveying means being an unremarkable tool in the back of a surveyor’s truck.

Andrew Cain