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The Promise of UAVs for Decision Support


Generally speaking, remote sensing entails the collection of measurements of an object from a distance. Humans have always employed remote sensing techniques to assess the environment in which we live from key vantage points. The information we gather about our surroundings such as the location of resources of value, threats to our security, and the lay of the land, is critical to myriad operational applications—both civilian and military.   

As advancements to technology continue, our ability to collect data about our world has migrated from hilltops to airborne and spaceborne perspectives high above the earth's surface. Remote sensing platforms circling above allow us to capture information over areas that are dangerous, inaccessible, or otherwise too costly to access from the ground, such as war zones, or vast areas of ocean, desert, and jungle. And, as these platforms orbit or hover above the earth, they produce data coverage over these inaccessible areas repeatedly, creating an information archive that enables the ability to perform temporal analysis. 

For those who rely on remotely-sensed geospatial information to support operational decision making, data availability is often challenging. Despite the existence of advanced spaceborne and aerial platforms, the process of asking remote sensing systems to focus on and collect data from a specific area of interest in a timely manner is difficult and can present operational risks for all but the most well-heeled, well-connected, and senior levels of government. But, a change to this dynamic is in the air—literally:  more flexible remote sensing platforms in the form of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles/Systems (UAV/UAS).

UAVs represent a culmination of cutting edge avionics and remote sensing technology:  lightweight, highly deployable, and relatively inexpensive systems with the ability to quickly provide surveillance and intelligence collection over broad, inaccessible areas, while alleviating humans from mundane or hazardous airborne operations. The utility of UAVs has been generally conflated to singular-functioning, militaristic combat drones. This representation overshadows the myriad benefits provided by these flexible remote sensing platforms, and clouds the promise presented by the inevitable integration of UAV technology into the domestic commercial market.   

The impact of UAVs integrated into the domestic U.S. airspace is clear: the ability to easily and economically deploy remote sensing platforms will create a greater diversity and volume of available geospatial spectral data for analysis. Having more data with which to gain a better understanding of the world around us--and our impact on it--is an indisputable benefit. The proliferation of complex data, in both time and space, will require a robust technological foundation on which the storage, processing, analysis, and dissemination capabilities for future decision support systems will be built. These next generation decision support systems are not yet ironed out, but efforts to innovate the requisite components may provide a new source of fervor for the geospatial industry.