Change is in the Air: Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Take Off at Recent ASPRS Symposium

The ASPRS UAS Technical Demonstration and Symposium in Reno (Oct 21-22), organized by the Northern California Region of ASPRS (American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing), was a success surpassing expectations. Boasting a slate of presenters and exhibitors including many of the most distinguished brands in the market of UASs, imagery, lidar, and CAD, (Google, Esri, Autodesk, BAE Systems, Pix4D, 3D Robotics, senseFly, Airware), as well as a host of up-and-coming businesses, the Symposium registration enjoyed a marked surge in the weeks preceding the event. Of the more than 530 attendees, fewer than 200 were active ASPRS members, thus introducing the Society to hundreds of new potential members having a demonstrable interest in unmanned aerial systems and mapping.

The Symposium program, which opened with commendations by the mayor and representatives of each of the local Congress and Senate representatives, continued with welcoming remarks by ASPRS Executive Director Michael Hauck and ASPRS President Stewart Walker, both of whom addressed the role of ASPRS in the context of the emerging UAS industry and the restructuring ASPRS will undergo to lead the charge of codifying the uses and outcomes of this exciting and disruptive new platform. Hauck commented, with this conference ASPRS has put a stake in the ground as the go-to association for UAS-based mapping, imaging and geospatial information science.

The Symposium included panels, keynote addresses, and special presentations clustered around specific topics of interest to drone flyers, data processors, and business developers in the UAS industry, including vehicles, data collection, sensors, and data processing. More remarkably, after being introduced to the Nevada Advanced Autonomous Systems Innovation Center (NAASIC) Business Director, Lt. Col. (ret.) Warren Rapp on Tuesday morning, attendees were later bused to a local test site for live demonstrations. Forty-five minutes out from downtown Reno, Symposium attendees reconvened at an ASPRS Calibration and Demonstration Site where Altavian, PrecisionHawk, and senseFly demoed fixed-wing UASs, and DroneDeploy and the University of Hawaii demoed multirotor UASs; all were successful flights from takeoff to landing.

The presentations themselves served as critical and insightful introductions to components of UAS and their derived products, ranging from in-depth examinations of open-source computer vision (Kitware) and imagery compression (LizardTech) to broader-scope discussions of applications (3D Robotics) and big data cloud-based processing of archived imagery for interpretation (Google)what Google Product Manager Peter Birch aptly described as turning pixels into information.

Zooming out to the industry-scale, however, it should be noted and emphasized that, in the United States, few Certificates of Waiver or Authorization (COAs) have been issued by the FAA to allow UAS flights. Despite its ostensible value as an imaging and sensing platform, UAS as an industry is, for the moment, as Esri Senior Imagery Manager Gerry Kinn remarked, chaotic, yet imagery leaders such as Esri and Google are preparing for the imminent influx of data that UAS will deliver. To address this deficit between capabilities and implementation of UAS, helicopter pilot and Skyward Founder Jonathan Evans gave a detailed talk on the necessity of rules to govern commercial drone operation and compliance. Furthermore, DroneAnalyst CEO Colin Snow discussed their market research on UAS and how they might be monetized as a segment of the greater imaging and sensing industry. Effectively, the parties to the Symposium who attended to demonstrate their commercial UAS solutions for forestry, agriculture, mining, engineering, construction and even cinematography applications are at the starting line, poised to sprint into prominence upon the rollout of national policies to regulate the use of UAS.

ASPRS hasand all the more through the success of this UAS Symposiumtaken the helm of advancing and, perhaps more importantly, standardizing the practices involving this nascent technology and will do so with the creation of a UAS Division. According to the ASPRS bylaws, a minimum of 200 member signatures are required to institute a new professional division. Consequently, a petition was circulated through the conference and appeared to have captured signatures from most members attending, however, more signatures are sought in order to meet the minimum. Once the requisite signatures are captured, Pierre le Roux, current Director of the Primary Data Acquisition Division, will be Director of the UAS Division. While moderating the first panel session, le Roux proposed evolving the ASPRS UAS Website hosted at to house expertly-assembled UAS best practices to serve as standards for the industry. He also announced an ASPRS UAS Division-driven initiative to establish calibration sites for mapping UAS. Once established, these sites will be used for the certification of unmanned mapping systems. Anyone interested in assisting with the establishment of these calibrations sites can contact him at or through

The Symposium also proved to be a boon to ASPRS membership both within and outside the Northern California region. Heather Staverman, ASPRS Assistant Director of Communications, remarked on the demand for professional membership witnessed at the event, saying it had a very positive effect overall and will be especially encouraging for ASPRS membership and that the atmosphere proved to be encouraging the many non-member attendees to join. During the Symposium, Pix4D Business Manager Antoine Martin announced that Pix4D would join ASPRS as a Sustaining Member, with fellow Parrot Company and eBee maker, senseFly, immediately following. Aerovel Corporation, represented by Director of Business Development Andy Nickerson, also became a Sustaining Member.

For the student registrants, a bonus ASPRS Student Membership of one year was included with the conference cost, through which as many as thirty new Student Members have joined. The University of Nevada-Renos, Dr. Thomas Albright, after attending the Symposium, has pledged to charter an ASPRS student chapter at UN-R. In addition, exhibitors, from long-standing supporters Leica Geosystems, Riegl, Topcon, Towill Inc., and Penn State, to newer exhibitors such as DroneDeploy, Mapbox, Velodyne, and others filled the Exhibitor Hall which was constantly abuzz throughout the event.

Following the Symposium, GeoCues Lewis Graham and Steve Riddell hosted an optional and very informative sUAS Workshop on Thursday, replete with demos of mission planning of sUAS flights and post-processing of data captured thereby in AgiSoft PhotoScan, Pix4D Mapper, and GeoCues own LP360.

The Symposium organizing committee and its moderators, headed up by Northern California Region leaders Becky Morton, Alan Mikuni, and Lorraine Amenda (complete list here), are to be commended for this precedent-setting conference. Morton summarized the event, saying, the number of exhibitors and the level of excitement and participation to the very end of a packed program was extraordinary. The quality of the information provided during the general sessions was key to the success. In addition, the opportunity for live UAS demonstration and on-site data processing and analysis was also exciting and informative. I know that I learned a lot and I believe there was ample information and networking experiences provided during the 2-day symposium that allowed everyone to walk away with something new to consider.

For those who missed this event and wanted to attend, ASPRS intends to host this event annually. To follow updates and the web-release of videos from the Symposium, be sure to check and

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