During the past 50 years, surveying and engineering measurement technology has made five quantum leaps: the electronic distance meter, total station, GPS, robotic total station and laser scanner. Unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) or drones (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs) will be the sixth quantum leap in technology. Although drones have been around for a while, the technology has not yet been widely used in the surveying and remote sensing professions. But it soon will be, thanks to the advent of practical, lightweight lithium polymer batteries, low-cost drone technology, lightweight digital cameras and advances in close-range oblique aerial photography—all of which make the future of drones in land surveying exciting.

Drones will be a perfect platform for aerial photography and remote sensing. The built-in accelerometer and gyroscope that control flight can also be used to simultaneously control motorized camera mounts to keep the cameras level and correct for undesired tip and tilt caused by wind or a shaky pilot. Mikrokopter, DJI and Hoverfly drone controllers allow the uploading of GPS or Google Earth data to compute flight path coordinates and automatic route flights. The planning software also enables the planner to enter specific routes, speeds, altitudes and hover times over each point.

Many new software packages are available, led by Leica, Iwitness, DroneMapper, Photomodeler and others. Drone photographs processed using photogrammetry software can produce 3D accuracy that is equal to or better than conventional aerial photography. Standard GIS software and AutoCAD can be used to stitch and georeference drone aerial photos

The combination of low cost and easy assimilation of multiple technologies provides significant opportunities for development, including by surveyors and consulting engineers. A quick scan of YouTube videos reveals stunning drone technologies, such as groups of drones flying in formation. Possibilities include real-time 3D imaging and an almost unlimited list of others. Please feel free to view these videos about UASs.