On the way up - Surveyors reach for the sky in land work, by Angela Hawn

by Angela Hawn

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a...well, gee, it looks like a drone. And just what might that drone be up to? Well, surveying of course! Leave it to the profession which first thought to measure large tracts of land using nothing but a few pegs, some rope and a little geometry know-how to come up with yet another ingenious device in the era of high tech. The latest tool in the surveyor's toolkit, the drone has arrived and it's got nowhere to go but up.

Kevin Smith of Stirling’s P.A. Miller Surveying proudly shows off the latest in land surveying technology. According to USA Today, aerial surveys rank among the top uses for drones. Photo by Angela Hawn

Kevin Smith of Stirling’s P.A. Miller Surveying proudly shows off the latest in land surveying technology. According to USA Today, aerial surveys rank among the top uses for drones. Photo by Angela Hawn

From police analysis of highway collisions to monitoring the health of crops in farmers' fields, the potential applications for this incredible little flying machine appear limitless. And land surveyors should know. According to a recent article in USA Today, aerial surveys rank among the top uses for drones, second only to property showcasing by realtors.

“A job a conventional two-person survey crew might take days or even weeks to complete can be done in three or four minutes by a drone,” exclaims Kevin Smith, drone enthusiast and land surveyor with Stirling's P.A. Miller Surveying. “And it's relatively easy to use.”

In fact, getting the drone airborne requires nothing more complex from its handler than a few brisk back and forth movements, not unlike the simple, yet magical motion kids once employed to erase the screen of their etch-a-sketch toys. Shake, release and watch the drone take off, programmed to fly over a specific area and relay the lay of the land in stunning detail.

P.A. Miller’s Dave Parks (left) and Kevin Smith work with their new tool. By using an internet mapping program like Goggle Earth the surveyors can design a flight plan for the drone. Photo by Angela Hawn

P.A. Miller’s Dave Parks (left) and Kevin Smith work with their new tool. By using an internet mapping program like Goggle Earth the surveyors can design a flight plan for the drone. Photo by Angela Hawn

Able to cruise along at speeds up to 90km/h for nearly 50 minutes, this compact styrofoam flying machine packs a punch well above its 750g weight. A standard package includes the drone with fully functioning autopilot, as well as computer software, a customized compact digital camera, a battery charger, the batteries themselves, plus a spare propeller and some rubber bands.

Whoa, wait a minute...styrofoam? Rubber bands?

According to P.A. Miller Surveying’s Kevin Smith, the drone can accomplish in three or four minutes what may take a conventional surveying crew days or weeks. Photo by Anna Sherlock

According to P.A. Miller Surveying’s Kevin Smith, the drone can accomplish in three or four minutes what may take a conventional surveying crew days or weeks. Photo by Anna Sherlock

“The styrofoam is incredibly sturdy and the rubber bands were one of the selling features,” laughs Smith, making the $40,000 drone package sound a little like a hip cross between a Wright brothers prototype and something McGyver might invent. “Flexible rubber bands connect the propeller to the motor and they're relatively cheap and easy to replace as they wear out.”

And while the little drone itself might sound impressive, Smith raves even more about the sophisticated software used to make the whole thing tick. In order to prepare for upcoming survey work involving the Madawaska mine clean-up near Bancroft, Kevin will simply access an internet-based mapping program such as Google Earth and upload the appropriate coordinates. The drone's software takes over from there, automatically generating a flight plan.

Made of sturdy Styrofoam and weighing in at 750g, the drone can cruise at speeds of 90km/h for a 50-minute period. Photo by Anna Sherlock

Made of sturdy Styrofoam and weighing in at 750g, the drone can cruise at speeds of 90km/h for a 50-minute period. Photo by Anna Sherlock

Hmmm....A clever little craft with the ability to navigate and land all on its own? Worried some surveyor out there might one day implore a drone called “Hal” to open the pod-bay doors? Don't be. Smith assures he can change any drone instructions from his laptop or tablet, all on the fly if necessary. And it's the human beings who apply for Special Flight Operating Certificates and make sure drones follow all of the many rules and regulations set out by Transport Canada. Operators of these nifty little gizmos even undergo some flight school training before their drones head skywards. After that, it's up, up and away!