Is it Legal to Fly Drones for Mapping in the United States?

There is no about it, drones (also referred to as UAVs and UAS) are a disruptive technology that will significantly impact geospatial professionals not only in the U.S., but around the world. While the mainstream media has mostly pushed the panic button with regards to privacy and drones, you don’t often read a discussion about using drones for mapping.

In Switzerland, where drones weighing less than 30 kg (66 lbs) are legal to operate without a license as long as the operator maintains line of sight, drones mapped the famous Matterhorn Mountain (4,478 meters/14,692 feet) in the Swiss alps, at a resolution of 20 cm. This illustrates the power of drones for 3D mapping, and mapping in general. More efficient and less costly than traditional photogrammetry and airborne lidar, there is no doubt in my mind you will begin working with drones and/or data collected via drones in the near future. Of course, mapping the Matterhorn in 3D at 20-cm resolution is a monumental effort. Even using drones, senseFly reported that it took 11 flights, 5 hours and 40 minutes of flight time, and a total of 2,188 images to process covering 2,800 hectares (~6,920 acres). senseFly didn’t report how many manhours of post-processing the Matterhorn project required, but you know it must be a healthy number. Also, remember that Swiss regulations require that the drone operator must be within “direct eye contact” of the drone at all times, so you can bet the senseFly team had to do some serious mountain climbing.