The Business of Drone Mapping: State Regulations

A 321Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE

Should a surveyor’s license be mandatory for creating topographic mapping? Everyone can agree that licensure of surveyors is necessary to protect the public for retracement of boundary lines. But should licensure extend into other realms of measurement? I think if it can be reasonably established that licensure is necessary to protect the public, and that if non-licensed practitioners could harm the public with an inferior service, then it should be a regulated field. As technology continues to increase and make our job easier, it also allows someone without a surveyor’s license or background to create a topographic map that the customer believes to be accurate.

In August 2016 the FAA opened up an easier method to become a certified remote pilot. One only has to pay $150 and pass a fairly simple exam to become certified by the FAA to become a professional drone pilot. Now over a year later there are many tens of thousands of certified drone pilots hungry to cash in on the new drone economy. Many are discovering that the real money is in drone mapping. A simple search of the internet will result in many upstart drone companies offering mapping services. Anyone with a FAA part 107 certification could watch a few how-to videos on YouTube, take some pictures, then upload the pictures to one of several cloud based services that will process the imagery into mapping.

I believe that in order to protect the public, state agencies should regulate drone mapping if that mapping is to be used for "the design, modification, or construction of improvements to real property or for flood plain determination" which is how the State of Virginia , happens to define it. Drone pilots who are not licensed could still create mapping for general informational purposes. I believe that mapping created by someone who is self taught has more potential for critical mistakes than mapping created by a licensed surveyor. Licensed surveyors have many years of experience and know how to create checks and balances to ensure the mapping is reliable and accurate.

In February 2015, the Supreme court ruled on the case: North Carolina State Board Of Dental Examiners v. FTC. Here is the background: The State Board wrote cease and desist letters to unlicensed dentists operating teeth whitening services. The Federal Trade Commission thought that this was anti competitive and broke federal regulations. The Court ruled in favor of the Federal Trade Commission. I’ve seen this ruling misinterpreted by some who think that the FTC can therefore tell a state what is anti competitive. That is not quite true. In this case, the state of North Carolina admitted that they did not specifically regulate teeth whitening. In the majority opinion Justice Kennedy wrote, "state-action antitrust immunity cannot be invoked unless two requirements are met: 1) the challenged restraint of trade is clearly articulated and affirmatively expressed as state policy, and 2) The policy is actively supervised by the state." While I can only hope that the state boards are properly "actively supervised", the important thing to learn from this is that the state code, the state laws created by the legislature must be "clearly articulated and affirmatively expressed as state policy."

If you are concerned about unlicensed drone companies offering any kind of mapping services to the public, I would highly encourage you to investigate what your state code has to say about this subject and to work with your state board and legislative representative to ensure that your state code is "clearly articulated and affirmatively expressed" in regards to drone photogrammetry and mapping.

Ty Brady is a licensed Land Surveyor with Hurt & Proffitt of Blacksburg, Virginia.

A 321Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE