Use of Drones in GIS

Joseph Magnotta


Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), or “drone technology,” is a very hot topic amongst several disciplines, most of which are held together with the linchpin, GIS. They are one of the newest and most innovative tools to be considered for commercial use. They survey data in less time, using fewer natural resources than manned aircraft. While UAVs offer advantages of utilizing superior reach and dexterity in data collection, they usher in their own set of hurdles.

Drones’ own physical limitations, a consideration often overlooked, pose a limit to their technical scope. Undetermined safety regulations are the major holdup for the green flag on commercial use. The question of privacy is important to everyone. Even so, the potential that a partnership between UAS and GIS offers our economy is virtually limitless.

It is widely known that UAVs have been used by the military for a few decades. They frequent the news. Drones often make appearances on the big screen, and at least on that level we’re pretty familiar with them. Like GPS, UAS technology was first broadly implemented by the military and continues to serve as a component of our country’s defense. But where else are the drones flying?

USGS tests drone-based ground-penetrating radar.  Photo: Carole Johnson, USGS. Public domain.
USGS tests drone-based ground-penetrating radar. Photo: Carole Johnson, USGS. Public domain.

Current UAS Activity in GIS


Free weekly newsletter

Fill out your e-mail address to receive our newsletter!

With precision agronomics on the rise, more farmers are adopting technology and methods to decrease cost, increase yield, and ultimately increase the return on their investment. Drones give famers the convenience of being able to inspect crops from new perspectives and with frequency never before possible. Because they are able to pinpoint problem areas in the field, they’re able to remedy diseases and defects before they become costly. Farmers like Kyle Miller in Iowa City, IA are on the forefront of UAS in agriculture. Miller has been flying drones on his family farm. He also has formed a relationship with a vendor, and will be presenting the cost-cutting technology to other farmers in the future.

Emergency Services

There have already been success stories that credit drones with playing a large role in search and rescue missions. Drones don’t get tired or distracted. The data collected by UAVs can be reviewed easily, unlike human observations. In law enforcement, drones play mainly a surveillance role. They are the eyes for monitoring infrastructure and pursuing suspects.

Geospatial Services

Geospatial technology is what gives UAS the ability to be autonomous. Without the capability of following a GPS-guided flight plan, a drone is just a glorified radio controlled aircraft. In addition to autonomous operation, certain drones carry a myriad of sensors. The convenience of inspecting vast infrastructure without significant time and manpower invested is enough of a reason for surveyors, construction firms, and power companies to deploy drones.

Furthermore, a case study in Morocco details game-changing capabilities by UAS in orthophotography and aerial mapping. A series of studies conducted by comparing UAV data collection with conventional satellite imagery found that the advantage of UAS brought image resolution from over a meter to less than ten centimeters. With ground control points, the precision of the images improved proportionally.

Atmospheric Science

The advantages drones provide in data collection make them not only perfect for observing the surface of the earth, but also the atmosphere. NASA has already put their drone, Global Hawk, to use looking for hurricane activity. The imagery collected by drones like this one becomes a powerful resource once fed into GIS.

Obstacles for the Use of Drones in GIS


Even though research and practical use have proven the advantages that drones provide for almost any type of surficial and aerial data collection, technical capacity still keeps the drones from completing certain tasks. Limitations, like limited flight time, data storage, and launch methods tether survey applications to smaller missions. The market itself, through investment and innovation, should correct these particular setbacks.


Even though the government approved four drones last week, there are still many models and uses waiting for the green flag. The major concern of the FAA about commercial drones is safety. The guidance technology in drones is susceptible to digital interference by solar storms, intentional signal jamming, and hacking. These vulnerabilities may seem like rare possibilities, but collisions and near collisions continue to be reported.

Privacy and Nuisance

From irrational fears to reasonable concerns, the public has questions that ought to be answered about how the use of drones will be regulated. What constitutes an invasion of privacy with regard to data collection and personal identity? Considering the saturation of industries with many intertwining and overlapping technologies, like facial recognition and thermal imaging, what lines will be drawn for privacy?

Along with privacy, a nuisance factor plays a part in the public’s acceptance of commercial drone use. The City of Deer Trail, CO has entertained the idea of shooting down and even placing a bounty on UAVs. If the climate for the use of military and hobby drones around personal property is volatile, what will be the reaction when UAS becomes more prevalent?

Three Ways UAS and GIS Will Serve in the Future

Like GIS, technologies implemented by UAS are intertwined, and their benefits serve multiple applications simultaneously. Their current uses will rapidly bloom.


UAS technologies will allow us to more efficiently produce better mapping. Coupled with LiDAR and other scanning methods, GIS consultants will have at their disposal data never before commonplace in the business world. This will institute a new standard to 3D modeling. The tremendous advantage of UAS already proven to be effective in the public sector will undoubtedly shift to the private market. We’ll see a new flavor of topographic mapping, live video feeds, and 3D story maps.


When considering developments in nanotechnology and highly advanced weaponry, drones of the future will make yesterday’s science fiction become a reality. Evidence of miniature swarming drowns can already be found on the web, not to mention drones that can open doors. A quick search on the web proves that prototype drones equipped with small arms are also being researched. These drones could be huge assets in hostage situations and urban counter-terrorism.

Aid & Delivery

Whether companies like Amazon are actually able to deliver airborne packages to customers in less than an hour, there will be great interest in communicating with and taking services to people in places not readily accessible. Imagine a drone as the first responder to the scene of an accident, or emergency management crews enabled by UAS to do reconnaissance at the site of a hazardous incident. Alec Momont, a graduate student at Delft University of Technology in Netherlands has already developed an EMS drone capable of delivering emergency medical supplies to victims.


The use of drones is not going to fade into the wind, and neither will their use in GIS. Primed for the launch, UAS development companies and data collection firms across the country are strategizing about how to respond to the next decision the FAA will make on UAS. It is inevitable that regulations will continue to be put in place that will at least provide routes for the private sector to exploit drone technology. The future applications are many, and virtually every scenario would require GIS to most efficiently manage the resources being used.


O’Leary, Josh. 2014. The Des Moines Register. Iowa City farmer uses drone to aide farming precision

d’Oleire-Oltmanns, Sebastian, Marzolff, Irene, Peter, Klaus Daniel, and Ries, Johannes B. 2012. Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) for Monitoring Soil Erosion in Morocco. 4(11), Remote Sens. 3390-3416; doi:10.3390/rs4113390 2012. NASA’s Global Hawk Mission Begins with Flight to Hurricane Leslie

Jansen, Bart. 2014. USA Today. FAA lets 4 companies fly commercial drones

Brown, Stephen Rex. 2014. Daily News. It’s drone season! Colorado town to vote on license to shoot down unmanned aircraft

Szczberba, Robert J. 2014. Forbes. The Future of HealthTech – Ambulance Drones


Photo of author
About the author
Joseph Magnotta