Innovators of Technology Series

Mapping on a Budget Using Drones and Digital Data - Interview with Jeff Campbell

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

Small drones, both fixed wing and multirotor, are tools well suited to capturing the imagery required for aerial mapping. The requirements for getting started in this business are less than one might think, but there's a significant difference between an attractive looking map and an accurate product. Welcome to an interview with Jeff Campbell, managing partner of Vertical Aspect, the managing partner of Vertical Aspect, a small company specializing in consulting, training and sales of products associated with UAV (drone) mapping.

What is your name and your relationship to drones and digital mapping?

I'm Jeff Campbell, and I'm a retired Naval Aviator, with over 3,000 hours, in primarily rotary wing aircraft. Following my Navy career, and a shorter second career at Lockheed Martin as a program manager of numerous major IT programs, I teamed up with a professional surveyor, Mark Paulson to form Vertical Aspect ( We specialize in Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, (drone) mapping – to include consultation, training and service work. We also offer various hardware and software tools such as Pix4D Pro mapper software, the Robota Eclipse fixed wing mapping platform among others.

How are drones related to mapping? What are the most common mapping projects?

Drones have found a definite niche in the mapping spectrum ranging from satellites to the surveyor on the ground. They are well suited to small to mid-sized projects (1-400 acres) per flight, and multiple flights can easily be combined to efficiently cover around 100 acres for multirotor and up to 1200 for fixed wing. While many types of different products can be generated, some of the more common projects are orthomosaic imagery, topographic (contour) mapping and volume calculations.

What are the two main types of drones and how are they used?

Fixed wing drones look either like a conventional airplane, but more commonly are of the flying wing style. Multi-rotor drones contain from 3 to 10 separate propellers (or rotors). Their specific name is derived from the number of rotors, with quadrotors (4) and hexacopter (6) being the most common.

What are the main advantages of multirotors and fixed wing drones?

In a nutshell, the fixed wings can cover larger areas, and due primarily to only powering a single motor, have longer mission durations. This increased duration, along with flying at higher speeds and higher altitudes – all equate to larger coverage areas. They do require larger takeoff and landing areas and due to their higher altitude, produce projects at lower resolutions than that of multicopters – which are able to take off and land vertically in very small areas, have greater precision in their ability to hover. In addition, multirotors have a lower cost of entry, deal with smaller data sets and are generally easier to learn to fly.

How does it all come together – what's the workflow involved?

There are two main types of software involved; 1) Mission Planning software to provide direction to the drone on which area to cover, at which altitude and where to take the pictures, and 2) Post-Processing software to take the numerous images (from 50 to 1000 or more for a typical project) and use them to process the various outputs. Combined with the aircraft itself, a typical workflow would involve planning the mission, loading it into the aircraft, launching the aircraft and capturing images, and then post-processing the images to create various types of output, such as an orthomosaic image, topographic map, volume analysis or cut and fill report.

What are some of the emerging trends?

With the increasing drone market, many more manufacturers have entered the field, both spurring completion and increasing innovation. We see the ability of drones to provide Increasingly more accurate projects with the proliferation of Real Time Kinematics (RTK), and the rapidly lowering cost of professional GPS systems. Multirotors are starting to incorporate hardware-based collision avoidance sensors. Both types of aircraft are benefitting from more accurate flight control hardware and software systems, along with incorporating terrain height data into the mission planning software. Transponders or some other type of collision avoidance will be necessary to ensure separation from manned aircraft and allow increasing access to controlled airspace.

Is it easy to start a drone business? Who are the team members that would be needed?

With the 29 August 2016 advent of the FAA Part 107 commercial drone pilot certification process, the legal entry into the commercial drone market will continue to expand exponentially. This lower barrier to entry will tend to saturate the lower end of the market (simple imagery and real estate videos). While many operators will be able to create aerial maps, only those which incorporate absolute accuracy (generally speaking, 1/10th of a foot) will find a market with surveyors, engineers and contractors. Both technical knowledge/experience and business acumen will be needed.

What are one or two of the main lessons learned?

Find an area of expertise based on your desires, background and budget. Make it your niche, and get into the market. Continue to hone your skills and become an expert in one main area rather than being mediocre in a number of them – there's no shortage of mediocre mappers, photographers, videographers in the market.

Determine whether you're willing to endure the time, money and frustration in learning by trial and error (Guess, Buy, Fly, Crash, Fix & Repeat …) or to invest in professional guidance on purchasing decisions and training which will help eliminate many of the costly mistakes.

Jeff will be giving a full presentation at the "New Opportunities with Drones" GTW Dec 1-2 in Houston.

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